32. Secular Saints (Luke 9:37-56)
James was seventeen, three days a student at the Veterinary College in Scotland. Today he had attended his first class in animal husbandry and he was euphoric. His professor was one of those exceedingly talented men who could bring his subject to life. James was not just motivated to study horses, however, he felt he had come to know everything there was to know about these magnificent creatures. To enter into the role of the veterinarian more fully James bought a brand new riding mac with a full array of snaps and buckles which, he said, slapped against his legs as he walked.
Stepping out onto the street in front of the college, what should his eyes behold but a massive horse, standing passively before the coal cart which it was his task to pull about the streets of Scotland. It was not a beautiful specimen, for it was old and its back was swayed, but it was big and it was a horse. James stepped up to the animal, surveying it with what he believed to be the eye of a highly trained veterinarian. He identified the various parts of the creature’s anatomy, as he had just been taught the previous hour. The crowds passed by, oblivious to his expertise. Having finished his task, James started to walk away, then turned, intending to express to the horse his affection for the horse with a parting gesture.
James reached up, intending to pat the great beast on the neck, but the horse acted with unexpected speed, clamping his teeth firmly into the material of James’ new mac and lifting him from the ground. James dangled in mid-air like a lop-sided puppet. The passers-by, once uninterested and unimpressed by his air of confidence, now pushed and shoved to get a better look at this bizarre spectacle. Some older ladies, took pity on James and pled for someone to come to his help. To James’ chagrin, the younger ladies giggled. James was mortified. Not only was he overcome with shame, his wind had been cut off by his new coat, and saliva from the horse’s mouth was running down his face.
Just then a little man pushed his way through the crowd. It was the coal dealer, the horse’s owner, who quickly sized up the situation and commanded his horse to drop James. When the horse hesitated, the coal dealer jabbed his thumb into the horse’s belly. Quickly the horse dropped James to the ground, gasping for air. As soon as he could get to his feet, James tried to disappear into the crowd, but he could not help but hear the advice of the horse’s owner, who shouted after him, “Dinna meddle wi’ things ye ken nuthin’ aboot!”
James did not let this initial setback keep him from pursuing his ambition to become a veterinarian. This is fortunate for us as well for James Herriot not only went on to become a veterinarian, but he also became a very popular author who has shared many of his experiences in his writings, such as in the book, All Creatures Great and Small, in which he tells the story about himself and the coal dealer’s horse.
The story of James Herriot reminds me a great deal of the disciples of our Lord in the events of Luke chapter 9. At the very beginning of the chapter, the disciples were sent out to preach the gospel of the kingdom of God (Luke 9:1-6). This appears to be the disciples’ maiden voyage, as it were, upon the seas of public ministry, ministry which they conducted apart from the physical presence of the Lord Jesus. During this brief training mission, the disciples successfully preached and conducted healings, which included the casting out of all demons (9:1).
Now, at the end of chapter 9, they must feel even more equipped. They have participated in the feeding of the five thousand, and they have been a part of the great confession, at which time the identity of Jesus as Israel’s Messiah was professed. While the three are on the mount of transfiguration, observing the transformation of our Lord, along with Moses and Elijah, and hearing the testimony of the Father, the nine are down below, miserably failing in ministry.
I can imagine the disciples feeling just as confident as James Herriot on that day when the Lord was on the mount and they were left by themselves. What a golden opportunity. What a chance to “show their stuff.” When that father came along, begging them to cast the demon from his son, they must have felt absolutely capable, fully equipped to handle the situation. After all, had they not cast out all demons when they were sent out. “Sure. No Problem,” I can almost hear the nine saying. “Bring your son here. We’ll handle it.” What could possibly go wrong?
Plenty, as we can see. I can almost see one of the nine saying to the rest, “Step aside, let me handle this.” Whoever was first must have felt confident that a mere word would have delivered the child from his demon captor. It didn’t work, however. The demon did not obey. I can imagine the look of bewilderment on the face of that disciple. “What could I have done wrong?,” he may well have pondered. “Here, let me handle this,” says another of the nine. I wonder if every one of the nine tried their hand at exorcising the boy.
The more they tried, the more people gathered. And, it would seem, the more aggravated they became at the disciples’ impotence. The father certainly seems to show the signs of exasperation. From Mark’s account, it would appear that the Jewish religious leaders, the “teachers of the law” (Mark 9:14), took this occasion to harass the nine. They surely had the advantage, for the disciples could not produce any results. All the disciples could do was to debate, which Mark tells us they did. And to add to their humiliation, while the disciples were not able to cast out the demon from the boy, they came across a man who was successfully exorcising, and he wasn’t even a part of their group (cf. Luke 9:49). The final blow must have been the stinging words of our Lord,
“O unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you and put up with you?” (Luke 9:41).
Something is definitely wrong. Discovering what it is that is wrong is the purpose of our lesson. It is my conviction that the same evils which plagued the disciples of our Lord have continued to plague the saints and the churches of our Lord throughout its history. Let us see what these evils are.
The Structure of the Text
The major divisions of the remainder of chapter 9 may be summarized as follows:
(1) 9:37-43a—The Disciples’ Defeat: The Demonized Boy
(2) 9:43b-45—The Disciples’ Dismay: Jesus’ Coming Death
(3) 9:46-48—The Disciples’ Dispute: Who is the Greatest?
(4) 9:49-50—The Disciples’ Dilemma: The Competition
(5) 9:51-56—The Disciples’ Desire: “Smoke” the Samaritans
The Disciples’ Defeat
The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. A spirit seizes him and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.” “O unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.” Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the evil spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. And they were all amazed at the greatness of God (Luke 9:37-43).
Jesus is gone, but the nine disciples were likely undaunted by the request of a concerned father to cast the demon from his son. The demon caused epileptic-like symptoms, among others. The boy would scream, go into convulsions, and foam at the mouth (Luke 9:39). The demon would also attempt to destroy the boy by causing him to fall into fire or water (Matthew 17:15). But this was not all. He was also possessed by a spirit which Jesus called a “deaf and mute spirit” (Mark 9:25). All in all, the boy’s life was in constant danger and his life was one of sheer torture, not to mention the agony which this caused his parents. The father was desperate, but the disciples were defeated in their attempts to cast out the demon.
A large crowd was gathered about the nine, it would seem not an entirely friendly crowd, for among them were “teachers of the law,” who were arguing with them (cf. Mark 9:14). The crowd was delighted to see Jesus return and rushed to Him. The man with the demonized child begged Jesus to rid the child of his demonic oppressor. He hastened to point out that he begged the disciples to do it, but that they were unable.
In a way, our Lord’s response catches us off guard:
“O unbelieving and perverse generation. How long shall I stay with you and put up with you?” (Luke 9:41).
Of whom is our Lord speaking, when He says this? Is He speaking of the father, of the crowds, or of the disciples? My understanding, based on our Lord’s choice of the term “generation,” is that Jesus was referring to all: The father, the disciples, the “teachers of the law,” and the crowds.
The father was unbelieving, as can be seen more clearly from Mark’s account.
“It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” “ ‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for him who believes.” Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:22-24).
This is not all, however, for the disciples were also unbelieving, as can be seen from Matthew’s account:
Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 17:19-21).
If our Lord’s words of exasperation reveal anything to us, it is how much our unbelief displeases Him. His words further reveal the suffering which His incarnation caused Him. How much easier it had been, and would be, for our Lord to have stayed in heaven, than to have come to earth, to dwell among sinful, unbelieving men.
Think about it for a moment. God did not have to come to dwell among men, as Christ did in His incarnation. God did not have to come to save men, which His incarnation was purposed to accomplish. Nor did God have to use men in reaching others with the good news.
Perhaps we can better understand the frustration of our Lord with men, all men including (perhaps especially, at this point) the disciples, by considering the way in which God often chose to “get things done.” In the Bible, God very often employed angels to accomplish His purposes. Can you ever think of an instance in the Bible in which an angel argued with God about what He was doing, or how He was doing it? Now think about the disciples. They often differed with the Lord. Peter set out to set Jesus straight on a number of things (cf. Matthew 16:22-23). Can you ever think of a time when an angel failed at his task? But here, as elsewhere, the disciples failed. No wonder Jesus viewed His days with men in terms of suffering. God suffers from our hardness of hearts, from our unbelief. It is a cause of grief to Him. And yet, He bears this burden for our benefit. He endures our sin, in order to save us, and even to use us in the achievement of His purposes on the earth. This is one of the great wonders of all time—that God puts up with men.
What the disciples could not do, Jesus did, by merely speaking a word. The rebel demon in the boy gave a last burst of defiant energy, and came out of him. All were amazed at the power of God manifested through Jesus.
The disciples were bewildered. They could not understand how they could deliver from demonic control in the past, but not now. Both Matthew and Mark record the private query of the disciples as to why they were unable to cast out this demon:
After Jesus had gone indoors, his disciples asked him privately, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “This kind can come out only by prayer” (Mark 9:28-29).
Then the disciples came to Jesus in private and asked, “Why couldn’t we drive it out?” He replied, “Because you have so little faith. I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you.” “But this kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting” (Matthew 9:19-21).
I wondered why Luke does not include this information. Why would he not tell us the problem and give us a clue to its solution? After some thought, it occurred to me that only Luke’s account of this event is followed up by yet another volume—the book of Acts. The book of Acts describes a dramatic reversal of the problems manifested in the lives of the disciples at this point in time. The disciples suffer, as Jesus said, from unbelief, from a lack of faith. The manifestation of this is their lack of prayer. And the result is a lack of power. In the book of Acts we find faith, prayer, and power. Luke saves the good news, the solution, for his second book. Matthew and Mark give us the solution now, for they do not have another book left to write. We will say more of this later.
The Disciples’ Dismay
When the disciples were with the Lord in Galilee (Matthew 17:22; Mark 9:30), Jesus once again informed them of His coming death and resurrection:
While everyone was marveling at all that Jesus did, he said to his disciples, “Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into the hands of men.” But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it, and they were afraid to ask him about it (Luke 9:43b-45).
Jesus began by telling the disciples to “listen carefully,” an expression which should have been especially significant to the three, who had heard the Father’s exhortation to “listen to” the Jesus, Messiah (Luke 9:35). He then went on, once again, to tell of His coming death and resurrection. The disciples did not yet understand what He meant, although they were grieved by His words (Matthew 9:23). They would feared to ask Jesus what He meant (Luke 9:45).
The Disciples’ Dispute
An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all—he is the greatest” (Luke 9:46-48).
The disciples may have feared asking Jesus about His death, but they were not reticent or ashamed to ask Him about their own positions in the kingdom. Luke tells us that the disciples disputed among themselves concerning who was the greatest. Jesus, knowing their motives, raised the issue with them. Matthew tells us that when the disciples came to Jesus, they did not ask Him directly about their own position or greatness, but that they veiled their ambition:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” He called a little child and had him stand among them. And he said: “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Therefore, whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. “And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me (Matthew 18:1-5).
The disciples’ debate about their own greatness may well have been precipitated by the disaster the nine experienced with the demonized boy. When the twelve were all together, how easy it would have been for the three, having had their private glorious experience on the mount of transfiguration, to have come down on the nine for their failure to exorcise the boy. I can easily imagine how the argument might have gone. “Man, you mean you guys weren’t even able to cast a demon out of a boy? Well, when John and I went out we really put the demons on the run, didn’t we John?” “You guys just needed an expert along.” How easy for the three to look down their spiritual noses at the nine.
The lesson which Jesus taught His disciples is a very interesting one. He took a child and said that anyone who ministered to that child in His name was actually ministering to Him. I think I know why Jesus found it necessary to use this lesson. If you are concerned about your status in ministry, you measure the significance of your ministry by the significance of your audience. To minister to a “significant person” is, in effect, to be a significant person. To minister to the insignificant—say, a child—is to have an insignificant ministry, and thus is equated to being insignificant. This is a pagan point of view, but it seems to be the viewpoint of the disciples here. And, it is typical of the thinking of Christians down through the ages. Among pastors, do you think it is unnoticed who has the biggest church, the wealthiest church, the fastest growing church, the most up and coming congregation? You bet it does, and the motivation behind it all reeks of the same value system that plagued the disciples of our Lord. Jesus taught that it did not matter to whom you ministered because all ministry should be ministry to Christ and for Christ. To welcome a child is to welcome Him. To serve a child is to serve Him.
Here is a lesson which needs to be learned by many of us. How many times have I heard someone say (or imply) when offered a seemingly “non-status” ministry that what they really had in mind was something “more significant.” Usually this translates to the group of recipients being bigger, more important, and the ministry position having more status. Our Lord taught that all such thinking is anti-Christian. It is only competition and ambition concealed in a cloak of piety.
The Disciples’ Dilemma
Competition (for this is really what ambition produces) is not only found in its many-faceted personal forms, but also in various collective versions. Thus, we come to the next event in Luke’s gospel, the case of the non-franchised, non-ordained, non-approved exorcist:
“Master,” said John, “we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.” As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem (Luke 9:49-50).
Apparently the disciples were not successful in stopping this exorcist, either, for they tell the Lord that they tried to stop him. Isn’t it interesting that this group of men who fought with one another for position also resisted anyone else having a successful ministry. If they were unable to successfully cast out a demon, why should they allow this “outsider” to do so? Jesus responded by rebuking the disciples, reminding them that anyone who was not against them, anyone who was doing good in His name, was no enemy.
Desire: Smoke the Samaritans
As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, “Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them, and they went to another village (Luke 9:51-56).
It is indeed ironic. The Lord has repeatedly told His disciples that He would be rejected by the Jews and specifically by the Jewish religious leaders. He is now resolutely headed toward Jerusalem, where His rejection and death were soon to take place. On the way to this city which would reject her King, the Lord passes through Samaria. The determination of our Lord reflected in verse 51 is similar to that described in John chapter 4, where John tells his reader that Jesus “had to go through Samaria” (John 4:4). In this particular town, the Lord and His disciples were rejected, not because they were Jews so much as that they were headed for Jerusalem.
Two of the three disciples who had accompanied Jesus on the mount of transfiguration, James and John were incensed. Righteous indignation simply oozed from them. They requested the Lord’s permission to “smoke the Samaritans” by calling down fire from heaven on them, much as Elijah (whom they had just seen on the mount of transfiguration) had done to the Israelite soldiers sent out against him in 2 Kings chapter 1, who were acting like Samaritans. James and John, like Jonah, would rather watch their enemy suffer the wrath of God than to experience His grace. The disciples would have enjoyed calling down fire from heaven to destroy their enemies.
Jesus rebuked them. It was a very thinly veiled racial and cultural prejudice that motivated the disciples, not at all in keeping with the spirit or the intent of Jesus’ coming to earth. He had come to save, not to destroy. And what it particularly interesting is that the motivation of the disciples in wanting to “smoke the Samaritans” is precisely the same as the Samaritans’ motive for not welcoming them because they were on their way to Jerusalem— racism. The disciples found the Samaritans worthy of death for their prejudice, but did not recognize the same evil in themselves.
Our text reveals several serious problems with the disciples that must be dealt with. Not only are these problems which plagued and paralyzed the Lord’s disciples, they are problems which have hindered saints and the church throughout the church’s history. Let us first summarize the failures of the disciples, as seen in our text:
PROBLEM ONE: THE DISCIPLES SUFFERED FROM A LACK OF POWER.
When begged by a desperate father to cast a demon out of a child, the nine disciples are not able to do it. The disciples’ impotence is highlighted by the fact that another, who was not one of their number was, successfully exorcising in that area (cp. Luke 9:49). It is not that the disciples had not done so before (Luke 9:1-6), but only that they now were unable.
The disciples’ inability to cure the demonized child is not due to any lack of power, for our Lord’s words make it evident that they could have exorcised the child if they had prayed and fasted. They did not experience the power of God for two principle reasons:
They did not feel the need to rely on the Lord for power.
They would have misused this power, either to further their own position, or to judge their enemies (e.g. the Samaritans).
PROBLEM TWO: THE DISCIPLES SUFFERED FROM A LACK OF UNITY.
The disciples were marked by dissension at this point in time. They were arguing with the “teachers of the law” (Mark 9:14). They were arguing with each other (Luke 9:46; Mark 9:33). They were even trying to interfere with the ministry of a man who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name, but was not one of them (Luke 9:49).
PROBLEM THREE: THE DISCIPLES SUFFERED FROM A LACK OF COMPASSION.
When the disciples asked the Lord’s permission to “torch” the Samaritan city, their request betrayed yet another serious weakness. It betrayed a deep-seated prejudice, the kind which hindered the church and which was a direct affront to the gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. Acts 15; Galatians 2:11-21). While the outward symptom is that of cruelty and severity, the root problem is even more lethal—self-righteousness. The disciples, like the Jews of their day, felt smugly superior to the Samaritans. They despised the “lowly” Samaritans, just as the scribes and Pharisees disdained “sinners,” now realizing that they were great sinners themselves.
The disciples manifested the same spirit which we have seen in the prophet Jonah—that self-righteous spirit which resists proclaiming the gospel to those of another race, preferring instead to see their destruction. It is the same spirit which prevailed in Judaism in Jesus’ day. This is why the once enthusiastic Jewish audience in the synagogue at Nazareth (cf. Luke 4:1ff.) suddenly turned on Jesus, when He makes mention of the blessing of the Gentiles in the past.
The application of our text is based upon a very simple, but profound principle: JUST AS THERE IS NO TEMPTATION WHICH IS NOT COMMON TO MAN, NEITHER IS THERE ANY SIN WHICH IS NOT ALSO COMMON TO MAN
The sins of the disciples are not unique, but are as common as the cold. As we seek to learn how this text applies to us, we must recognize that the problems of the disciples are precisely those which have been evident in the church throughout its history, and which are hindering the church to this very day. Let us see how a lack of power, a lack of unity, and a lack of unity are the malady of all men, and not just of the disciples.
Powerlessness is not merely a symptom of a problem in the lives of the nine; it is symptomatic of an anemic church today as well. Paul wrote of those in the last days who would have “a form of godliness, but denying it power” (2 Timothy 3:5). The church at Sardis seemed to suffer from listless, lifelessness, too (Revelation 3:1-6). It is my opinion that the church today is suffering from a lack of power, rooted in prayerlessness, the origin of which is to be found in a lack of faith. If we really believed that God is able to do “exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think” (Ephesians 3;20), we would be much more at prayer, and the power of God would be much more evident in our midst. The disciples are not that different from us, are they?
Disunity and division has and continues to plague the church of our Lord Jesus Christ, just as it did the disciples. The church at Corinth was very clearly a divided church. They divided over their leaders (1 Corinthians 1:10-12), over the one who baptized them (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:13-17), over their personal rights (1 Corinthians 6:6-13), and over their spiritual gifts (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:1ff.). Strife and division is found frequently in the churches of New Testament times (cf. Galatians 5:15; Philippians 4:2; James 4:1-2). In America, success is the standard of one’s worth. Competition is the name of the game, not cooperation. Church splits, denomination divisions, and other forms of strife are very commonplace events. The disciples’ difficulty is ours as well.
A lack of compassion is also a universal problem. The Old Testament prophets frequently called on the nation Israel to manifest compassion. The prodigal prophet, Jonah, was typical of the nation Israel in his cruelty and lack of compassion with regard to his enemies, the Ninevites. We, too, lack compassion. When we hear of a homosexual, dying of aids, there is all too often a sense of satisfaction in this—”They deserve it!” we say to ourselves. And so they do. But we deserve the outpouring of God’s wrath, too. Our sins are as offensive to God as theirs, but we would rather that our enemies suffered God’s wrath than His grace. We are often hard and callused to the sufferings of men and women about us. We justify our severity by thinking that sin is the reason for the suffering of others, and that righteousness is the basis of our blessings.
We now need to recognize another principle, which is necessary if we are to understand this text in Luke’s gospel: SINS OFTEN HAVE A PIOUS VENEER, A RELIGIOUS SUGAR-COATING, WHICH MAKES THE SINS APPEAR EVEN VIRTUOUS.
None of the three sins of the disciples is recognized as sin by them. Indeed, they seem to have thought of their attitudes and actions as virtuous. Sin is like that. Some may be enticed by sin by knowing it is wrong (“stolen water is sweet,” Proverbs 9:17), but sin is especially enticing for the religious by thinking it is virtuous. The disciples thought their indignation and intentions of burning the Samaritan city were righteous. They no doubt viewed being “first in the kingdom” as a noble goal as well. And they were doing Jesus a favor by seeking to prohibit an unauthorized man from exorcising demons. How much easier it is for us to justify our sins by feeling that we are duty bound to do them. Beware of sins with pious exteriors!
There is another principle which is essential to the interpretation and application of our text, and it is this: SOME SINS ARE SYMPTOMATIC, ROOTED IN OTHER SINS, WHICH MUST BE IDENTIFIED AND DEALT WITH IF WE ARE TO BE FREED OF THE SYMPTOM SINS.
Abraham’s sin of lying (about the identity of his wife, Sarah—cf. Genesis 12:10-20; 20:1-18) was rooted in a deeper sin—lack of faith. It was not until Abraham’s faith grew that his sin of lying was remedied. So, too, with the “symptom sins” of the disciples. Each of the sins of the disciples was rooted in a deeper sin:
PRODUCED SYMPTOM SIN
LACK OF PRAYER & POWER
COMPETITION/LACK OF UNITY
LACK OF COMPASSION
Recognizing the problems of the disciples and knowing that we share them does not explain to us how these problems can be solved. Some would point to the book of Acts for the solution. When we come to the book of Acts, we do discover a dramatic change in the lives of the disciples in the very areas which we have discussed. Notice these words:
On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: “‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.’ Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly. All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of his possessions was his own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and much grace was upon them all. There were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned lands or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone as he had need (Acts 4:23-35).
The apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders among the people. And all the believers used to meet together in Solomon’s Colonnade. No one else dared join them, even though they were highly regarded by the people. Nevertheless, more and more men and women believed in the Lord and were added to their number. As a result, people brought the sick into the streets and laid them on beds and mats so that at least Peter’s shadow might fall on some of them as he passed by. Crowds gathered also from the towns around Jerusalem, bringing their sick and those tormented by evil spirits, and all of them were healed (Acts 5:12-16).
In place of self-sufficiency and a lack of power we find faith, prayer, and the power of God manifested in the lives of the disciples. In the place of the self-seeking, competition, and disunity, we find a oneness of heart and mind. In place of self-righteousness and a lack of compassion, we find great compassion shown to the needy. But while Acts reports that a dramatic change has come to the disciples, where is the description of what the cure is? What is it that changed the disciples?
I know that there are some who would like to suggest to us that the solution to the lack of power in the lives of the disciples was the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The coming of the Spirit did make a significant impact on the disciples, but the simplistic view that one needs only to have a dramatic experience with the Holy Spirit simply does not square with the Scriptures. The early church, as found in the early chapters of the book of Acts, was a dynamic and powerful church, but as time went on, carnality crept into the church. Even believers who had received the Holy Spirit and who possessed the gift of tongues manifested the same symptoms which we see in the disciples’ lives in Luke chapter 9.
The solution to the problems of self-sufficiency, of self-seeking, and of self-righteousness are to be found in realizing the sinfulness of these conditions, and then, by God’s grace and enablement, taking up our cross, and following Him. It means, in the words of the New Testament, putting to death the old nature, it means putting off the old man and putting on the new. It means walking in the Spirit, and not fulfilling the lusts of the flesh. It means living by faith, and not by sight.
As we conclude, let us look to the New Testament epistles in order to see that it is the cross of Christ which is the key to each of the three problems which plagued the disciples and which continue to plague us.
(1) The problem of self-sufficiency and a corresponding lack of power is solved by the cross of Christ, which is the power of the gospel.
I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile Romans 1:16).
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written: “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate” (1 Corinthians 1:18-19).
For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:2-5).
(2) The problems of self-seeking and disunity is solved by imitating Christ in taking up His cross. Paul tells the fragmented church at Philippi that imitating Christ was the means to turn self-seeking into self-sacrifice and discord into unity.
If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:1-11).
(3) The problems of self-righteousness and its resulting lack of compassion are solved, once again, by the cross of Christ. The apostle Paul confesses that he once felt “self-righteous” as a devout Jew, but that when he came by faith to the cross of Christ, he now counted those things in which he once took pride as dung:
Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord! It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you. Watch out for those dogs, those men who do evil, those mutilators of the flesh. For it is we who are the circumcision, we who worship by the Spirit of God, who glory in Christ Jesus, and who put no confidence in the flesh—though I myself have reasons for such confidence. If anyone else thinks he has reasons to put confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death (Philippians 3:1-10).
The problem of the disciples and its solution is nowhere more concisely summed up and solved as it is in the epistle of James. Let us conclude by pondering his inspired words and their application to the sins of the disciples as well as our own:
What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures (James 4:1-3).