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Perspective, Personal Ambition, and Prophecy (Luke 22:24-38)

24 Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. 28 You are those who have stood by me in my trials. 29 And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, 30 so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

31 “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” 33 But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” 34 Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.” 35 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. 36 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. 37 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.” 38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied.

Introduction

Fred Smith, a friend of mine, once said to me, “John Calvin would have made an excellent golfer.” He waited for a response. I bit, and he explained. “You see,” Fred quipped, “John Calvin taught that everything that comes naturally is the wrong thing to do. In golfing, you never do the thing that feels right.” I have played just enough golf to believe that Fred was right. Likewise, in skiing, when one seems to be losing control and gaining speed going down hill, the way to solve the problem is to lean forward. But the natural inclination is to lean back, gain speed, and lose the ability to steer the skis.

Calvin, if indeed he taught as Fred claims, was right too. How often the natural thing to do is the wrong thing, at least when it comes to the Christian life. In many, many, areas of life, if we asked ourselves how we would naturally handle a certain situation or accomplish a particular goal, and then do the opposite, we would be right, biblically speaking. Jesus taught that the meek will inherit the earth, that the mourners will rejoice, that one gains his life by losing it, and that one acquires wealth by giving it away. Jesus’ way of doing things is very often the opposite of the way we would think things should be done. For this reason Donald Kraybill entitled his book on this subject, The Upside-Down Kingdom.92

Our text consists of three major sections. In verses 24-30, Luke gives an account of a dispute between the disciples as to who was regarded as the greatest, and Jesus’ words of correction and instruction. In verses 31-34, Jesus informed Peter of his three-fold denial, which was soon to occur; but He did so in such a way as to give Peter encouragement and hope after he failed. In the last paragraph, verses 35-38, we come to one of the most difficult texts in the gospels, one which has caused Bible students to scratch their heads.

Remember as we approach these three paragraphs that these are the last words of instruction Jesus gave to His disciples, at least as Luke’s account in concerned. These are very important words, indeed, words that had great meaning for the disciples, and words which contain important lessons for us as well. It is not just the disciples of days gone by who have a problem of sinful personal ambition and who reflect an ungodly and destructive spirit of competition. When we look at the Corinthian church, we find this problem of self-assertion and status-seeking was still one of the major hindrances to the unity and ministry of the New Testament church. In his epistle to the Philippians, Paul wrote that of all those whom he might have sent, those who were both saints and ministers (of a kind), he had only one man who was not self-seeking, and that man was Timothy. All the rest “seek after their own interests” (Philippians 2:21), Paul said. If we but look about the church today, we see that power struggles, ambition, and self-seeking are everywhere—everywhere. Jesus has the answer to this problem, and Luke has recorded the answer in our text. Let us listen well to our Lord, for His words are desperately needed today.

The Setting

Long before, Jesus had set His face toward Jerusalem, where He was to be rejected by the religious leaders and the nation, and where He would be crucified by Roman hands. Jesus has come to Jerusalem, where He made His entrance, to be received by many, but not by the leaders of the nation, and not really by most Jerusalemites. Jesus cleansed the temple, driving out the money-changers, arriving there early in the morning, and then leaving in the evening, to camp out (it would seem) on the Mount of Olives. The Jews sought to publicly challenge and embarrass Jesus, to challenge His authority, and to entrap Him in His words, but this plan failed miserably. They also sought to infiltrate His ranks, in order to obtain inside information which would enable them to arrest Him privately and to put Him to death out of the sight of the crowds, who still favored Him.

But it was through none of these efforts that their plans to destroy Jesus were realized. It was one of Jesus’ own followers who volunteered to turn Jesus over to them conveniently when the opportunity arose, for a price. The actual betrayal is coming quickly count, but not yet. Jesus has gathered with His disciples to observe the Passover meal. At the meal table, Jesus has much to teach the disciples, for this is His last opportunity to speak to them before He is separated from them by His arrest, trial, and crucifixion. It seems to be sometime during the meal that the dispute broke out among the disciples, a dispute which provides the occasion for further instruction and admonition by our Lord. This is the setting for our entire section of Scripture.

The Dispute
(9:24)

24 Also a dispute arose among them as to which [one] of them was considered [regarded, NASB] to be greatest.

It is impossible to determine from Luke’s account whether the dispute arose before the washing of the disciples’ feet (John 13) or after. It would seem most likely that it arose before, perhaps in connection with the disciples’ eager rush to find the best seats at the table. Where one sat at a meal table in that part of the world indicated how important he was (cf. Luke 14:7-11; Matthew 23:6). It would seem that as the disciples entered the upper room where they were to partake of the Passover Lamb, they rushed past the basin where a slave would normally have washed the feet of the guests (and where no slave was present), in order to gain the best seats. Perhaps the disciples argued because those who thought themselves to be the greatest lost out in the race for the chief seats. Peter, who may have been the oldest, and thus a likely candidate for “first chair,” seems to have been more removed from Jesus than John who was reclining on Jesus’ breast and who also may have been the youngest (cf. John 13:23-25). If this were the case, then Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet was indeed a timely lesson. This act would certainly exemplify our Lord’s claim to be among them as “one who serves” (Luke 22:27).

But why the great concern about where one sat at the dinner table, about who was regarded as the greatest? I think the answer is quite simple: the disciples seemed to think that whoever was the greatest at the time the kingdom was inaugurated would also be the greatest in the kingdom. It is much like those who want to purchase tickets for the finest seats at the Super Bowl, tickets which are in very limited quantities and in great demand. They will go through great efforts and sacrifices to wait in line for hours to be at the head of the line when the ticket office opens.

When I lived in Washington State, one of my favorite sports events was the Gold Cup unlimited hydroplane races sometimes held on Lake Washington. These boats would be out on the lake some time before the starting gun went off. In fact, there was a one minute gun which was fired to serve notice that in exactly one minute, the starting gun was to be fired. While the boats would be in various places before the one minute gun went off, they would all congregate in the same general area, and then, with each driver carefully watching his speed, his position, and the one minute clock in the cockpit, the boats would all race down the lake, passing under the Lake Washington bridge at 160 miles per hour, hoping to cross the line first, a split second after the starting gun was fired.

Every driver knew his chances of winning the race were far better if he began the race in front of all the others. If he were not first, the driver would have to constantly fight the wake of the boat or boats ahead of him, rather than run on relatively smooth water. The boat would also be caught in the rooster tail of water shooting high into the air behind the lead boats. The rooster tail threatened to literally drown out the engine of the boat behind. To start first meant a good chance of staying in front all the way through the race. I believe this was the way the disciples felt about where they were seated at the Passover Celebration, as well as the way they felt about who among them was regarded as the greatest. It is my assumption that the disciples did not consider how Christ regarded them, but rather they debated as to their ratings with the masses. It was not the reality of who was the greatest which was the concern of the disciples, but only the perception of it. Their standing before men seems to be the issue.

Ironically, but not accidentally I think, Luke places his account of this dispute among the disciples concerning who was regarded as the greatest immediately after the verse in which we are told the disciples were discussing who it was among them who might be the betrayer of whom Jesus had just spoken. It is as though the disciples were more interested in their own greatness than in identifying who among them was the traitor. There is little time to look for traitors when one is disputing about his greatness.

I do not know just how “civil” or “subtle” this debate was. Among many, the struggle for position and power can be very polite, very orderly, and very underhanded. Here, I am inclined to see the disciples as more frank and not so subtle. Remember that James and John were known as the “sons of thunder.” These fellows were the kind who could have come to blows over such matters, at least before they met the Master.

We should not move on without also pointing out that this dispute over who was perceived to be the greatest did not erupt here for the first time. It seems to have been the cause for debate frequently among the 12. In Luke chapter 9 (verse 46), after the transfiguration of our Lord and the successful sending out of the 12, the disciples argued about who might be the greatest. Often, it would seem, the disciples’ discussion about their greatness came in the context of Jesus’ disclosure of His rejection, suffering, and death (cf. Mark 9:31-34).

Jesus’ Correction of
the Disciples’ Competitiveness
(22:25-30)

25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.

27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. 28 You are those who have stood by me in my trials. 29 And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, 30 so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.

Jesus began by contrasting what we might call “Christian greatness” with “Gentile greatness.” In verses 25 and 26, Jesus contrasted the conduct of “great Gentiles” with that of “great disciples.”93 The Gentile kings “use” their greatness; they let others know they have it; they flaunt it. Gentile kings do not simply lead; they dictate and dominate; they “lord it over” others. This dictatorial rule seems to be justified, in their minds at least, by their claim to be “Benefactors.” They had themselves called by the title, “a doer of good,” and thus their being a “public servant,” a doer of good for the people seems to have justified their abuse of power. We hear of men who justify the abuse of power by labor union leaders on the same premise. “I don’t care if there is corruption and graft in the leadership. They have done a lot of good for me.”

How different the disciple of Jesus must be. Jesus does not here argue against greatness. He accepts the fact that some men are great, greater than others. All are not equal. The issue here is not whether some saints should be greater than others, but rather how they use their greatness. Jesus said the first characteristic which should mark the great Christian is that they don’t use their position. While they may be the greatest, they are not to act like it, or to demand they be treated like it. They are to be like the youngest; they are to regard themselves and act like the one who has the least power. (Many of us know how “bossy” older brothers or sisters can get, and how they think they can tell younger siblings what to do.) They would thus speak gently, when they could get away with being harsh and severe. They will not seek to force others to serve them. Instead, they will be characterized by servanthood. They will use their position and their power as a platform of service. The benefits which they could claim for themselves they will pass along to others. In short, Jesus taught His disciples that they should manifest greatness in exactly the opposite way the Gentiles do. They should live in an “upside-down” kingdom.

If verses 25 and 26 contrast the conduct of the great Gentiles and great Christians, verses 27-30 tell us the reasons why this should be so. If verses 25 and 26 contrast the manifestations of greatness (between the disciples and the heathen), then verses 27-30 contain the motivation and the means of true greatness, that greatness which characterizes Christ, His disciples, and the nature of the kingdom of God.

The disciples were not to pattern their lives after the heathen, but rather after their Master. The greatest, Jesus pointed out, was the one who sat at the table—who was served—while the one who stood, the servant, was the lowest. There was no argument that Jesus was the greatest, and yet He told them He was the one who serves (verse 27). When Jesus told His disciples above that the greatest must be the servant of all, He was simply reminding them that they must be like Him. He was not asking them to do anything which He was not doing Himself. How can it be that the greatest—Jesus Christ—is the servant? That answer will be found in the last paragraph of our text.

It would appear Jesus is saying that His disciples are never to possess a position of greatness, power, or leadership, but this is not the case. Jesus says in verses 28-30 that His disciples are giving up position and power in this life because they are to obtain it in the next, in the kingdom of God. Jesus never commands men to give up life, money, family, and power for nothing. He calls upon His disciples to give up the temporary and imperfect riches of this life in order to lay them up for the next. These riches are temporary; they are subject to decay and theft. The true riches of heaven will never perish. So too with position and power. We are to give up “first place” and its prerogatives in order to be given a place of honor in His kingdom. In His kingdom, the disciples are promised that they will sit at the table—His table, and that they will be given thrones on which they will be seated, and from which they will rule.

The disciples’ preoccupation and debate over their own position, prestige, and power was inappropriate for several reasons. Those Jesus has mentioned thus far are: (1) this is the way the heathen behave; (2) it is the opposite of the way Jesus has manifested Himself, even though He is the greatest of all; and, (3) the preoccupation with greatness is untimely, for that which the disciples were seeking will not come in this life, but in the next.

It is neither the disciples’ accomplishments nor their own greatness which gain them a place of power in the kingdom, but it is the Lord who wins this for them. Their blessings and privileges in the kingdom are those which Christ Himself achieves, and then shares with His followers. The Messiah does not “ride on the shoulders of His disciples,” as they seemed to have thought, propelled by their greatness; rather they are carried to their blessings by Him.

Jesus’ Words of Prophecy to Peter
(22:31-34)

31 “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift you as wheat. 32 But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.” 33 But he replied, “Lord, I am ready to go with you to prison and to death.” 34 Jesus answered, “I tell you, Peter, before the rooster crows today, you will deny three times that you know me.”

It seems to me that Peter was one of the main characters in this debate over the disciple’s perception of greatness. (I suspect James and John were also very much a part of this argument.) Jesus’ words to Peter then would be very directly related to His role in the debate over greatness. Jesus’ words must have smarted as the elder statesman of the group, who thought he was the greatest, heard from Jesus that he would not even survive the next few hours without denying His Lord, three times no less! If Peter felt he was considered the greatest, surely he must also have looked at himself as one of the most loyal, committed members of our Lord’s band. It must have been inconceivable for him to think of himself as such a weakling that he would deny his Lord when the going got tough.

The two-fold reference to Peter (the nickname Jesus gave him, meaning “the rock”) as Simon must have hurt, too. This was Peter’s “natural” name, the one which characterized him, to which he always answered, before he met the Master. It seems to suggest that Peter would be acting like his old self, and not as a disciple of the Lord when he denied Him. He would be acting in his own strength, and not that which the Lord gives.

It was not just that the “old Simon” was going to prevail in the next few hours and thus fail. Jesus informed Peter that Satan himself was involved in what was to take place.94 It amazes me that Satan had the audacity, the arrogance, to demand anything from the Lord. It further amazes me that Jesus did not forbid Satan to “sift” Peter (and the rest—the “you” here is plural = “to sift you all”). Why didn’t Jesus simply forbid Satan from attacking Peter and the others? The answer must be that Jesus intended to use Satan’s dirty tricks to serve His own purposes for the disciples’ good.

Peter’s failure was for his own benefit and for the benefit of all the disciples. While the Master would not prevent Satan’s attack, He would pray for Peter’s faith not to fail. Thus, while Peter was destined to fail, his faith would not. Jesus therefore predicted not only Peter’s failure but also his restoration. And when he had turned back, Jesus instructed, Peter was then to strengthen his brethren. Peter could not be used when he was too “great,” too self-confident, too self-seeking. But after he failed, after he experienced the grace of God, then Peter could lead men. It was not greatness Peter needed to experience, but grace, and this was soon to come.

Peter protested, insisting that Jesus’ words would never come true, and that he would remain faithful, even unto prison and death. There is a sense in which this was true, for it was Peter who drew his sword, seeking to prevent Jesus’ arrest, and cutting off the ear of the high priest’s servant. But in the final analysis, Peter was calling our Lord a liar. Peter, as someone has pointed out, was willing to trust his own feelings of love and of self-confidence rather than to trust in these words of prophecy, words from none other than the Lord. Jesus therefore must once again reiterate the fact that Peter would deny Him, and not only once, but three times.

Jesus’ Puzzling Words
About Satchels and Swords
(22:35-38)

35 Then Jesus asked them, “When I sent you without purse, bag or sandals, did you lack anything?” “Nothing,” they answered. 36 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. 37 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.” 38 The disciples said, “See, Lord, here are two swords.” “That is enough,” he replied

This passage is, without a doubt, one of the most problematic texts in the Gospel of Luke. The difficulties are obvious:

(1) When Jesus sent out the 12 (chapter 9) and the 72 (chapter 10), He appeared to give them guidelines and principles which would govern their future missionary journeys, even (perhaps especially) after His death, burial, and resurrection. Now, it would seem that He is throwing out all that He had told them.

(2) In the previous sending of the disciples, Jesus gave them assurance of His presence and protection (cf. 10:3, 18-19), but now it would almost seem as though Jesus were telling these men that they are on their own, and that they will have to handle their protection themselves.

(3) Later texts seem to indicate that Jesus did not want His disciples to do that which He seems to be commanding here. When Peter attempted to resist the arrest of Jesus by drawing his sword, Jesus rebuked him with words that clearly forbade the use of force (cf. Matthew 26:52). Neither the Book of Acts (which Luke wrote) nor any of the epistles reiterate or reinforce the practice which Jesus appears to have advocated here.

There is then no question that this is a difficult text, and that these words are hard to understand. But if we believe the Scriptures to be the inspired Word of God, then we must also assume there is a solution, one we are expected to find. As I approach this passage and the difficulties it presents, I do so with several assumptions, which I should spell out before we press on:

(1) The difficulties in this text (I normally refer to these as the “tensions of the text”) are by divine design. They are designed to catch and to hold our attention, to cause us to meditate and to pray, and to study the Scriptures carefully.

(2) This text cannot be understood in isolation, but only in the light of its immediate context, as well as the Bible as a whole (Old and New Testaments).

(3) Jesus has deliberately connected and contrasted (“But now,” v. 36) His instructions here with those laid down in Luke 9 and 10. The nature and the extent of this contrast is a crucial factor, which we must determine.

(4) Jesus’ words here may have long-range implications and applications for these men, but for the moment they must have a very immediate and practical application.

The disciples have a very immediate problem, and immediate dangers and temptations, concerning which they will be encouraged to pray (cf. Luke 22:46). Peter will soon reach for his sword for which he will be rebuked. In John 16, which depicts the same scene but supplies additional teaching, Jesus told His disciples He had much more to say to them, but they were not able to bear it at the moment (John 16:12-13). This seems to be a signal that what He was then telling them concerned the most immediate and urgent matters.

(5) The words of Jesus were not to be taken in a starkly literal way. In the same context in John’s gospel (at least at the same general time frame—at the table with His disciples in the upper room), Jesus said He was not then speaking literally to them (John 16:25). Jesus rebuked Peter for taking His words literally (Matthew 26:50-54).

(6) The key to understanding the meaning of Jesus’ words in Luke 22:35-37 is to be found in context in Isaiah 53:12, the passage Jesus cited as an explanation and basis for His puzzling words.

The Meaning of This Mysterious Text

If we are to understand the meaning of our Lord’s words, we must first consider the context. The setting was described by Luke in verse 24. The disciples were debating among one another which of them was considered to be the greatest. This debate is far from new. It has been going on for a great while. We find the disciples arguing over this matter in chapter 9 (v. 46), immediately after Jesus told them of His coming betrayal (9:43-45). I think the power which had been bestowed on them in their first missionary journey (9:1-6) had already begun to go to their heads. Not only do they argue about who was the greatest, but they wanted to destroy a Samaritan village by calling down fire from heaven (9:51-55).

In chapter 10, the 72 were sent out (10:1-16), and it is obvious from the response of the disciples on their return that they were greatly impressed with the power they had at their disposal (10:17). Jesus did not debate the authority they had been given, and even went on to describe it in terms beyond their own awareness (10:18-19). Nevertheless, the disciples had lost the proper perspective, and so Jesus gently admonished them with these words:

“Nevertheless do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are recorded in heaven” (Luke 10:20, NASB).

Not only were the disciples wrong in seeking greatness and in competing with one another to do so, but they were also wrong in seeking greatness as men perceive it. The text does not state this directly, but it likely implies it. The disciples, Luke informs us, were debating “as to which one of them was considered to be greatest” (Luke 22:24, emphasis mine). The question is, “Considered the greatest, by whom?” Surely not by the Lord, but rather by men. In judging their standing in terms of human approval, they became guilty of the same sin as that which characterized the Pharisees:

“You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for that which is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God” (Luke 16:15, NASB).

Even if one of the disciples was right, as was “number one” of Jesus’ followers, as his ratings went with the crowds this would still be worthy of a rebuke from the Lord, for they were playing to the wrong audience. Their hearts were not seeking God’s approval, but men’s.

The preoccupation with position and power was a long-standing problem with the disciples, and Jesus was addressing it here for the last time before His death. This, it seems to me, is the cause of Jesus’ enigmatic words to His disciples. Jesus pointed out that the Gentiles love to be perceived as the greatest, and they accomplish this by “lording it over” those under them, and they seek to become known as benefactors. The disciples’ behavior is to be the opposite. Even if they are great, they are to be behave as the youngest, and they are to use their power to serve others, rather than to demand that men serve them.

Peter must have perceived his greatness not only as a result of his age but also as a consequence of his faithfulness and commitment. Jesus graciously “let the air out of Peter’s tires” of self-confidence by informing him that in spite of his bold pronouncements of fidelity and loyalty, he would fail three times over, and in a very short time. The final paragraph in this section, verses 35-38, addresses this same evil—the disciples’ preoccupation with position, power, and prestige.

The key to the correct interpretation of Jesus’ words is to be found in the text to which He referred—Isaiah 53:12. Jesus explained His puzzling words to His disciples with this statement:

“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 22:37, NIV).

Interestingly, the NASB uses the term “criminals” instead of “transgressors” here. This may very well be influenced by these words, contained in Mark’s gospel:

And they crucified two robbers with Him, one on the right and one on the left. And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And He was reckoned with transgressors” (Mark 15:27-28, NASB).95

One can easily understand how the term “criminal” could be chosen here. After all, did those who came to arrest Jesus and His followers not come out, armed to the teeth, something like a SWAT team? And did not Jesus point out that in so doing they were dealing with Him as a robber, a criminal (cf. Luke 22:52)?

The word in the original text which is found here is not the normal word we would have expected to be used of a criminal, although this meaning may be acceptable. The original (Hebrew) term employed in Isaiah 53:12 is one which refers to a “rebel,” one who defiantly sins against God. This may very well result in criminal acts, but the term “transgressor” is, I think, a better translation. Mark is, of course, correct. The fact that Jesus was crucified between two criminals did fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 53:12, but it did so in a kind of symbolic way, so that it also left room for a broader, more sweeping fulfillment. Jesus was numbered (perhaps, as has been suggested, “allowed Himself to be numbered”) among transgressors, and the two thieves were surely that. But it could also be said that since Jesus was now dealt with as a criminal, His disciples were regarded in the same way. Jesus and His disciples were considered transgressors.

Jesus had, to some degree, set Himself up for this accusation. From the very beginning, the “higher class” religious leaders objected to the fact that Jesus associated Himself with very unsavory characters. Technically speaking, men like Matthew probably were criminals before they met the Master. Jesus said, after all, that He did come to seek and to save sinners. Surely criminals too are sinners.

Jesus here said that His instructions to His disciples were to assure that the prophecy of Isaiah 53 was fulfilled. What did this prophecy predict, and why was Jesus making such a point of drawing the disciples’ attention to it? I believe Isaiah 53:12 is the key to unlocking the meaning of Jesus’ words. Let us briefly consider the passage in which it is found. This passage, as you will recognize, is one of the greatest (and most beautiful) messianic texts in the Old Testament. The apostles and the epistles will point to it as one of the key messianic texts. And yet only here, in the gospels, do we find this prophecy identified as Messianic, and as being fulfilled by our Lord. It is a magnificent text.

52:13 See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. 14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him — his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness— 15 so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.

53:1 Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? 2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground. He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. 3 He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not. 4 Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. 5 But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. 6 We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. 7 He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. 8 By oppression and judgment he was taken away. And who can speak of his descendants? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was stricken. 9 He was assigned a grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death, though he had done no violence, nor was any deceit in his mouth. 10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the Lord makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand. 11 After the suffering of his soul, he will see the light of life and be satisfied; by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many, and he will bear their iniquities. 12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great, and he will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors (Isaiah 52:13–53:12).

If you were to ask one of the disciples upon what they had based their messianic hopes and aspirations, they would surely respond that their expectations were based upon the Old Testament prophecies concerning the kingdom of God and the Messiah. In reality though their expectations were based on only some of the prophecies, namely those which conformed to their own desires. They would have undoubtedly turned to those passages which spoke of Messiah’s coming in order to judge the wicked and to liberate Israel. The one text to which they would not have referred is the text above in Isaiah 52 and 53. There would be at least two reasons for this. First, this text was not recognized or viewed as messianic until after Christ’s coming. Second (and, to a large degree, the explanation for the first observation), this text did not speak of a triumphant King, but rather of a suffering Savior. It did not fit their expectations. This is precisely the text to which our Lord calls the disciples’ attention, a text which He speaks of as having to be fulfilled through Him and through His disciples as well. What was it about this text that did not appeal to the disciples (or anyone else), yet which Jesus saw as coming to fulfillment?

There is one thing about this prophecy which characterizes it as a whole, yet which I have never before noticed. The entire prophecy utilizes a kind of literary contrast. The Messiah will be the King of Israel, who will mete out judgment to sinners, and yet He will also be the Suffering Savior who dies for the sins of His people. He is innocent, yet He will bear the guilt of men. He is greatly esteemed by God and is elevated to the pinnacle of position and power, and yet He is regarded by men as a sinner (a criminal, if you would), whose rejection, suffering, and death is viewed as just. He who is God is viewed as justly condemned by God. He who bears the sins of men is viewed by men as bearing the guilt of His own sins. The Messiah is perceived by men in a way precisely opposite that of God. Men look down upon Him as worthy of God’s wrath, yet it is He who alone is worthy (righteous), but who bears the sins of men.

The application of this prophecy to the circumstances of our text in Luke’s gospel is incredible. Jesus was not only speaking of the necessity of His fulfillment of this prophecy (as Mark’s gospel informs us—of His being crucified between two criminals), but of the broader implications of the prophecy. Men would reject the Messiah because He would not conform to their expectations of Him and of His kingdom. While God would look upon Messiah as the sinless Son of God, men would view Him as a sinner, condemned by God. Men wanted a kingdom in which they would have riches, freedom, power, and pleasure. Messiah would bring, at least initially, rejection and suffering. And so men would reject Him.

The disciples were debating among themselves who was perceived to be the greatest. They were thinking in terms of a “scepter,” but Jesus spoke to them of a “sword.” The disciples were thinking in terms of a crown, but Jesus was headed for a cross. Jesus, in so doing, was fulfilling the prophecies of the Old Testament concerning Messiah and His kingdom, but the disciples were wholly missing the point of His coming. What the disciples did not understand was precisely what this messianic prophecy was saying, that the glorious kingdom of righteousness was to be brought about by a “king” who was rejected as a sinner. The crown, as it were, was to be preceded by a cross. Indeed, the cross was God’s means of gaining the crown. All of this was revealed through this prophecy of Isaiah. Yet the disciples failed to grasp it, because they were looking at matters through the eyes of their own ambition.

If God’s Messiah was to be regarded and even rejected as a criminal, this also meant that His disciples would be regarded as such. Were the disciples debating who would have the highest position, the most power, the greatest prestige? Then the disciples were wrong. They, by association with Christ, were to be regarded as criminals, not kings. They would thus need to think in terms of swords (not literal ones, however), not scepters. They must be ready to endure men’s rejection and persecution, not men’s honor and praise. In so identifying with Christ and suffering with Him, the disciples would eventually enter into the victories and joys of His future kingdom, as He had just told them (Luke 22:28-30).

In the broader context of Isaiah’s prophecy and of our Lord’s rejection, suffering, and death, I believe we can now better understand Jesus’ words to His disciples in our text. When Jesus contrasted the disciples’ future experience with that in the past (“But now,” verse 36), He is not overturning every principle and instruction given to the disciples earlier. By and large, the principles and instructions laid down in the sending of the 12 (chapter 9) and the 72 (chapter 10) were those given to govern the missionary outreach of the church as practiced after Pentecost and as described by Luke in his second volume, the Book of Acts.

The “But now” of our Lord in verse 36 is intended to focus the disciples’ attention on the change which was occurring in the minds of the people of Israel toward the Messiah. Jesus asked His disciples if they had lacked anything when they went out before. They responded that they had not lacked anything at all. But why didn’t they lack anything? Because they were popular, as was their message, and the “Messiah.” But now a more complete picture of Messiah is available, and the people do not like what they see, even as Isaiah predicted.

Incidentally, we have a foreshadowing of this sudden change of popularity in the gospel of Luke. At the very outset of our Lord’s public ministry, He went to the synagogue in Nazareth, and He introduced Himself as the fulfillment of a very popular messianic prophecy. At that moment, these people were very open to the possibility that this one might be the Messiah (Luke 4:16-22). But when Jesus went on to speak of His messianic ministry as including the blessing of the Gentiles, the people could not tolerate Him any longer, and they were intent on putting Him to death (Luke 5:23-30). How prophetic this early incident in the ministry of our Lord was, and how much in keeping with the prophecy of Isaiah to which our Lord referred.

No, the disciples need not occupy themselves with thoughts of the kingdom which included popularity and position and power. They must prepare for the rejection and persecution which Messiah was prophesied to experience, in order to eventually enter into the blessed kingdom in time to come. The crown (12 thrones even, verse 30) would come, but not until the cross was borne. What a cause for sober reflection these words of Jesus should have brought to the disciples.

Were Jesus’ words intended to be taken literally? Certainly not. Jesus rebuked His disciples for seeking to use the sword to prevent His arrest. Nowhere in the Book of Acts or the epistles do we ever see the use of force advocated in proclaiming or defending our faith. The sword rightly belongs to the state (Romans 13:4). If we are to bear a sword in our fight, it is a spiritual sword, for it is a spiritual war (Ephesians 6:10-20). Jesus’ words in Luke 22 did draw attention to the contrast in the “climate” of this hour, with that atmosphere which prevailed at the time He sent out His disciples earlier, but even at that time Jesus had much to say about opposition and rejection. It was not that Jesus had not said anything about rejection, but just that the disciples had not experienced it, and neither were they disposed to think about it—until now. Jesus’ words here in Luke 22 then should not be viewed only in terms of contrast, but also for clarification—clarification of what had already been said but which had been overlooked because of the aspirations and ambitions of His disciples, fueled by their power and popularity, thus far, with the masses.

Conclusion

There are many points of application to these words of our Lord, addressed to His disciples so long ago. Let us consider just of few of the implications of these as we conclude.

First, we should expect rejection and persecution also, just as the disciples were instructed by our Lord. If you would, the disciples were suffering from a kind of “dispensational disorientation.” They were eager and willing to enter into the joys of the kingdom of God, when they should have been expecting and enduring the rejection of Christ, as prophesied by Isaiah. Why is it then that the gospel is still being proclaimed as the doorway to immediate popularity, prosperity, power and prestige? Because it is the way we would prefer things to be, rather than the way our Lord and the prophets have promised it would (and must be).

Second, we must, like the disciples, decide whether we are to view the world through the eyes of our own ambition, or through the lens of God’s revealed Word. The words of our Lord were intended to call the disciples to live in the light of what the prophets and He had been consistently predicting—the misunderstanding of, rejection of, and death of Messiah, in order to bear the sins of men and to bring about (ultimately) the kingdom of God. It would not then be by a sword, but by the shed blood of the Savior, that men would be saved. The disciples should not expect power, prosperity, and prestige, but rejection and persecution. Bottom line, the disciples must learn to live in the light of what God says, rather than in the light of what they want, or even what they, for the moment, see. God’s Word is to be our guide, not our own ambitions or desires. Faith is not based upon what we see, or even what we want to see, but on what God has said, even though that is not yet visible to the natural eye.

Third, God’s ways are not our ways, nor His thoughts our thoughts. The disciples were arguing about a crown while Jesus was speaking of a cross. The Messiah was rejected as a sinner by men, but received as the sinless Son of God by the Father. We must give up our lives to gain them, give up our wealth to gain true riches, serve others to be great. It is often true that man’s values are the reverse of God’s, and that His ways are incomprehensible to man. If we would think and act God’s way, we must do it in accordance with His word.

Fourth, we should not pray to avoid failure, but that our faith does not fail. So often our prayers seem to focus on the avoidance of failure, rather than on the endurance of our faith. Jesus promised Peter that he would fail, but that his faith would not. Failure taught Peter that it is grace that sustains us, not our own performance—as great as our affirmations of its magnitude might be. When we pray, either for ourselves or for others, let us pray that faith will endure and even be strengthened, not that we will not fail.

Fifth, if you would enter into the kingdom of God, you must see yourself as the sinner and Christ as the sinless Son of God. Isaiah’s prophecy indicated that men would regard the Messiah as a sinner. The assumption, borne out by the Scriptures, is that we see ourselves as righteous, and the Son of God as a sinner. If we would come to experience God’s salvation and enter into His kingdom, we must reverse our thinking—we must repent. We must see that it is we who are sinful and He that is sinless. We must see that it is we who were deserving of God’s wrath, and He who is worthy to reign over all the earth. On the cross He bore our sins, and He suffered God’s wrath for us. By trusting in His worth and His work, as personified and worked out through His Son, Jesus Christ, we can experience God’s forgiveness and salvation. In short, we must repent, and we must see things as they are, as God’s Word describes them.


92 Donald B. Kraybill, The Upside-Down Kingdom (Scottsdale, Pennsylvania: Herald Press, 1978).

93 The question arises, in my mind at least, as to why Jesus did not speak to His disciples about the misuse of power by the Jewish leaders, in a way similar to what we find in Matthew 23. Gentile conduct, however, was readily recognized and accepted as heathen behavior, and that which was ungodly and unseemly. This was the “worst possible case” in the minds of a Jew, even though they may behave similarly.

94 How well Satan should know this matter of seeking position and power. This was the occasion for his fall, and He seeks to make it the basis for the fall of others. The temptation of our Lord, therefore, should come as no surprise, when we find Satan in two of the three temptations offering Jesus power and position. When men enter into the realm of power-seeking, they have set foot on Satan’s turf, and they are thus an easy prey for him. It is also interesting to note here that Jesus did not “bind” Satan, as some pray for, but rather that He prayed for Peter. It is not intervention, but intercession which Jesus employed.

95 The NASB also omits verse 28, supplying it in the margin, based on the fact that some of the earliest manuscripts omit it.

Related Topics: Man (Anthropology), Spiritual Life, Heaven