Lots to Learn
Passage: Luke 9:37–9:50
It's not all about us and it's not all up to us.
Going into the Olympics this year, everyone’s eyes were on Simone Biles, one of the gymnasts for the US. She has been given the label of GOAT - Greatest Of All Time. She has been called not only the greatest gymnast of all time but some have called her the greatest athlete of all time. Simone Biles was even considered to be the face of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics with other major athletes like Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt not competing. She was expected to help the USA gymnastics team win gold and she was expected to break records for how many medals she’s won.
But only a little way into the gymnastics competition, Simon Biles had to stop competing. She walked out of the stadium with the team doctor and came back in her warm up gear and it was questionable whether she would be participating in later events. What was the reason? She didn’t feel in the right place mentally.
Which do you think was harder? The years of hard work, perseverance, determination, diligence, and practice to get her to that spot? Or the decision not to compete? What did it take to say “no” to competing? She had to accept her weakness, inability, and limits. Going into these games, she had a lot to live up to. People had expectations for her and she had to decide not to live up to those. She gave up competing at probably her last Olympic Games. She gave up setting records. She had to accept possibly losing her image as the greatest of all time - are you the greatest if you have to step out of the competition because you are unable to bear the weight of the pressure? So which was harder? Did it take more courage, strength, and determination to make it to the Olympics or to say “no” to competing in the Olympics? Which one makes her great?
Today we are finishing up the section of The Gospel According to Luke that we’ve been going through. Luke can be divided into four main sections. You can think of them as acts in a play. The first act showed us the events leading to Jesus’ birth, his birth, and other early events in his life. The second act showed Jesus traveling around the region of Galilee where he grew up, proclaiming the good news of God’s kingdom, teaching, healing, and casting out demons. This is the section we are finishing today. The major question has been: who is Jesus? The third act begins in chapter 9 verse 51. It says, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” The third act is about Jesus’ road to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die for our sins. The fourth act is about the week he spent in Jerusalem before his death, then it covers his death and resurrection.
This week, the curtain will close on the second act - Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. Before it does, we will see three stories of the disciples failing. Right before these stories, Jesus had asked them who they say he is. Representing the disciples, Peter said, “You are the Christ of God.” Then Jesus taught about the path of suffering, rejection, and death he must walk. And he taught about the path of denying themselves, taking up their cross, and following him that the disciples must walk. Then they saw a glimpse of his future glory. The stories we will hear today happened the day after Peter, James, and John saw Jesus’ glory up on a mountain.
What the disciples fail at in these stories is understanding what it means to be disciples of this kind of Messiah: a Messiah who is going to suffer, be rejected, and die. They don’t get it. They are focused on themselves. They are acting in a self-centered way. The symptoms of their self-centeredness can be summarized in two beliefs: 1) It’s all up to me 2) and it’s all about me. It’s all up to me and it’s all about me. In these stories, the disciples fail in various ways and we will see these two beliefs at the center of their failures.
Let’s look at the first failure in verses 37 to 43.
Failure of Faith (9:37-43a)
Jesus went up a mountain to pray, bringing Peter, James, and John with him. While there, they saw Jesus revealed in glory. God surrounded them with a cloud of his presence and said, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!” They had an experience like Moses and Elijah in the Old Testament had on a mountain where God made his presence visible. Then they walked down the mountain.
What they find at the bottom is a crowd of people waiting for Jesus. As they approach, a voice rises above all the rest. A man cries out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is an only child. And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
This man is desperate. He explains his son’s heart-breaking condition. There is a demon tormenting his son. He has already begged Jesus’ other nine disciples who weren’t on the mountain to cast it out but they couldn’t. Back in verse 1 of this chapter, Jesus gave his twelve core disciples power and authority over all demons and Luke reports that they were able to heal many (9:6). Why weren’t they able to help this man’s son? Why did the disciples fail in this situation when Jesus has given them what they need?
Jesus’ response gives us a clue. He says, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” Jesus quotes familiar words to them. All of them would have heard these words before. In Deuteronomy 31, God told Moses that the people of Israel would turn away from him to worship other gods (Deut 31:16-17). God then commands Moses to write a song about this generation that will turn from him to worship other gods (31:19). Jesus quotes from this song. Moses writes, “The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he. They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation” (32:4-5). Later in the song, Moses writes what God says: “I will hide my face from them; for they are a perverse generation, children in whom is no faithfulness” (32:20).
Despite God’s faithfulness, they turned from him. God was perfect in his relationship with them; he did nothing wrong or unfair. There was no iniquity in how he dealt with them and yet they dealt corruptly with him. In other words, the problem in this relationship wasn’t God. They entered the land God had promised them and then they forgot him and started worshiping other gods which is called idolatry and God calls idolatry adultery. Why? Because at Mount Sinai, God pledged himself to them and they pledged themselves to God. Then they broke their vows to him. God is like a faithful spouse whose partner is unfaithful.
Despite all they had seen God do, this generation of Israelites was unfaithful to God. And Jesus is using the words that described them to describe this crowd of people and even his very own disciples. He is describing them as a generation of people who have seen God do mighty things and yet are faithless.
Jesus doesn’t only describe them in this way but he does it with emotion. He asks, “How long am I to be with you and bear with you?” Jesus expresses exasperation, frustration, irritation. There is anger. In this interaction, we are shown what gets Jesus angry. In the Old Testament, when God gets angry, it is almost always because of idolatry - turning from worshiping, loving, and trusting him to give devotion to a false god (God Is Impassible and Impassioned, 202). God requires an exclusive relationship. This isn’t an open marriage. God will have no rival loves. Thus when his people commit spiritual adultery against him, he is angry and rightfully so. When Moses wrote his song, God warned that their adultery would provoke him to anger. Should we expect it to be any other way? God is fully committed and has demonstrated his commitment over and over again and yet his people give their love to another.
But God never has unjust anger (God Is Impassible and Impassioned, 204, footnote 32). God’s anger, and any emotion God expresses, is a perfectly fitted emotional response to the situation. The Bible teaches a doctrine called divine impassibility. This doctrine states that God “cannot be manipulated, overwhelmed, or surprised into an emotional interaction that he does not desire to have or allow to happen” (God Is Impassible and Impassioned, 3). God is not vulnerable to outside influence when it comes to his emotions. God’s feelings are not the results of actions imposed on him by others.
This however does not mean that God doesn’t have emotions. It doesn’t mean God is unconcerned with us, impersonally detached, insensitive, or indifferent. It doesn’t mean he is unable or unwilling to empathize with human pain and grief. God is impassible but he is also impassioned, perfectly vibrant in his affections. God’s emotions are always a choice of his own will. God always responds with the perfectly fitted emotional response out of his own will.
This means that we do not make God angry. We don’t break God’s heart. We don’t make God cry. Think about it. If we can make God angry, that means there are times when he is out of control of himself. There are times when we pull an emotion out of him. There are times when he is surprised or caught off guard and an emotion just comes out of him. But God is not emotionally unstable.
This is good news! If God is not surprised into an emotional reaction, it means we can have security in our relationship with him. We aren’t going to get in a situation where God says, “Oh I didn’t think you’d be this bad, this messed up, this sinful, this needy. We’re done.” God knows what he is getting himself into with us. There won’t be a day where he finally says, “I’ve had it. I’ve had enough. I’m fed up.” God doesn’t fly off the handle. We might make a decision we regret or say something we regret because of how we feel. God never does that. He won’t reach an emotional breaking point.
So what angers Jesus? What frustrates him? What irritates him? Jesus gets mad when people are cheating on God. When people are faithless and refuse to trust in him. He isn’t an emotionless, stoic bump on a log. Jesus can be angry! Especially when people have seen God’s mighty acts on their behalf and they still don’t trust him. And doesn’t that make sense? Would we expect any less? Should Jesus be indifferent to spiritual adultery? Should Jesus be indifferent to people cheating on his Father?
Why does this matter? First, we see that emotions themselves are not sinful. Ephesians 4:26 says, “Be angry and do not sin.” Jesus was sinless. His anger here is an expression of sinless human anger. We too can be angry and not sin. Anger is not always bad. Actually, it can be a way we express what God is like. Jesus shows us the right things to be angry about. Jesus puts godly human passion about the right things on display. He’s angry when people refuse to trust his Father who is perfectly trustworthy and has demonstrated his trustworthiness.
Second, this story teaches us about grace. Jesus gets mad with his disciples but he doesn’t give upon them. These disciples fail over and over again but Jesus doesn’t break his relationship with them. He may express righteous anger as a response. He may rebuke them. But he doesn’t abandon them or give up on them.
Jesus’ assessment of his disciples is honest and serious. He calls them faithless and twisted. And don’t we share the same condition? How often do we fail to trust in God when he has proven himself trustworthy over and over again? The harshness of Jesus’ assessment of our condition only brings us to be even more impressed with his love and grace. Jesus’ words show us how much we need God’s forgiveness. Jesus died for faithless and twisted people. If we weren’t faithless and twisted, there would have been no need for Jesus to come and die in our place for our faithlessness and twistedness. This story puts the abundant love and grace of God on display. God remained committed to Israel despite their constant unfaithfulness and Jesus remains committed to us despite our constant unfaithfulness. And yet, he doesn’t not take our lack of faith lightly.
Let’s go back to the disciples. We were talking about this a bit on Thursday night during our GFG and Larry said something that really helped me in understanding this. We were discussing how Jesus responds differently to different people. He is tender, compassionate, and welcoming toward the hurting and humble. But he often responds to the religious leaders with anger and rebuke. Why? Because they thought they were better than everyone so Jesus deals with them harshly, sternly, and seriously. So why does he respond to his disciples in the way he does here? Because his disciples in this passage are acting like the Pharisees. They are acting like “it’s all up to me and it’s all about me.” - and Jesus treats them accordingly. God is angry with proud people who refuse to trust him. But he welcomes and embraces people who bow before him in suffender.
They show themselves to be faithless and twisted because they had taken their eyes off God as the one with the power to drive out demons. They still had the authority - the right - to cast out demons, but they had disconnected themselves from the power source. They had made it all up to them and all about them. They had seen Jesus do so much, and now they were turning from him as their power source and as the one they represent.
When Jesus does cast out this demon, verse 43 says that all were astonished at the majesty of God. That same majesty of God was available to the disciples, but they relied on themselves instead of God. With whose ability do you assess the situation in front of you, yours or God’s? When we assess with our ability, we will always fall short. But when we assess with God’s majesty, anything is possible.
Failure of Understanding (9:43b-45)
This brings us to our next section. While people are still marveling, Jesus again predicts his death. Look at verse 44:
44 “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” 45 But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying. (Luke 9:44-45)
Jesus warns his disciples that the marveling will cease, the applause will stop, the crowds will dissipate, the people who seem to be pro-Jesus now will be gone. He warns that this isn’t going to last; many are fairweather fans. He wants these words to sink in: “I am going to suffer, be rejected, and die.” But the disciples fail to understand.
Their failure to understand this is key to why they fail in the next two stories. Let’s start in verse 46.
Failure of Humility (9:46-48)
46 An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. (Luke 9:46)
This shows they have a lot to learn about following this kind of King. Jesus will deny himself. He will take up his cross. And all who want to come after him must do that as well. But the disciples are concerned about who is greatest among them. They are jockeying for position. They set up a ladder and are debating who is higher up on the ladder. They are trying to climb the ladder and fight for status.
Jesus knows what they are thinking so he brings a child to his side. Today, we put a high priority on protecting children. Laws are written and organizations formed to ensure the protection and well-being of kids. We recognize that kids are vulnerable and can easily be taken advantage of so we put measures in place to protect them. That wasn’t the case in the 1st century. Children were often thought of as disposable. If a child wasn’t the right gender or had some major health issue, they might just be abandoned, put out in the elements to die.
In the 1st century, children had no power, no rights, no status. They were those of humble estate. Insignificant. Weak. Small. Dependent. So as his disciples are arguing about status, Jesus brings someone beside him of extremely low status and says:
“Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.” (Luke 9:48)
A child is the perfect example of one who was least in the 1st century world. They are at the bottom of the ladder of status that the disciples are so worried about.
They’ve just seen Jesus’ glory and heard God proclaiming Jesus’ high status - he is God’s Son, God’s Chosen One. But Jesus, even though he has the highest status of all, does not refuse to associate with the lowly and the least. In fact, that’s who he has come for. Jesus says whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For whom did God send Jesus? To seek and save the powerful? To seek and save the greatest? To seek and save the influential, the famous, the rich? No. As we have seen in Luke 4, Jesus has come to proclaim good news to the poor, to set the captive and oppressed free, to bring sight to the blind. Jesus associates with tax collectors, lepers, Gentiles, well-known sinners - people of low status. And many of those with high status are questioning him, challenging him, and will eventually reject him.
In fact, people may like Jesus now, honoring him as one who has high status, but he will end up as one with low status. Those with high status in the Jewish world - the elders, chief priests, and scribes - will reject Jesus and have him put to death. Jesus will be hanged naked on a cross as a criminal. Will the disciples still want to be his followers then?
Jesus says to receive or welcome people of low status such as children. To welcome someone means to honor them - to treat them as an honored guest in your home. The poor, the vulnerable, the easily discarded, the one with no worth in the world’s eyes - that’s who you are to treat with honor. Jesus says the least among you is great. In other words, treat those of low status like they have high status. When you do this, you are aligning yourself with God’s heart, will, and purpose. You are aligning yourself with God’s values. You are seeing people like God sees them. The lowly attract Jesus; the prideful repel Jesus.
Jesus is showing them the values and priorities of the kingdom. God values everyone who turns to him. He is not concerned with worldly greatness or status. The kingdom doesn’t work like that. The person who is least in the world is great in the kingdom. Worldly status does not transfer over into the kingdom. It’s a totally different value system. The person at the bottom of the ladder in the world is at the top of the ladder in God’s kingdom because God puts them there.
The church should not operate on the same values and principles as the world. Do you ever find yourself distancing yourself from someone because they are weird or unpopular? Do you ever find yourself trying to get close to or recognized by someone that others respect and revere? We may ask ourselves: “Is this person important? What can they do for me? Which person makes me look better if I associate with them? How will this look if I am seen with them? Who can get me ahead?” I think we all do this to some degree without even knowing it. We are drawn toward people who are easy for us to relate to and we are repelled by people who are difficult. We tend to operate in transactional ways. We consider what the pay-off is for us. We make it all about us. Thank God this isn’t how Jesus is or we’d be in big trouble.
Failure of Unity (9:49-50)
In the last story, we see a continued concern with status. Verse 49 tells us one of the disciples’ response to what Jesus just said.
49 John answered, “Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” (Luke 9:49)
The issue of status continues with John’s complaint about the exorcist he witnessed: “This guy doesn’t have the right to do what he is doing - he isn’t part of our group.” The disciples had the authority given by Jesus to cast out the demon from the man’s son earlier but they lacked the power because they were relying on themselves. This other exorcist who is casting out demons in Jesus’ name probably belongs to the broader group of Jesus’ disciples but not to the core twelve. What’s interesting is that this exorcist obviously has the power to cast out demons but John’s complaint is that he doesn’t have the authority to do so. John wants to set up clear boundaries of status. Earlier they were setting up a ladder, now they are drawing dividing lines. But Jesus says:
“Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:50).
Jesus has no interest in playing these games. This man is fighting the same battle they are fighting and he is obviously doing it better because he is succeeding where the disciples failed. But this isn’t all about them.
Comparison, competition, rivalry, exclusion, status-conscious, self-importance - this is what is characterizing the community of disciples, the very characteristics that Jesus has taught against (cf. Sermon on the Plain) and which Jesus pays no regard to. Jesus knows he himself will be put into a place of low status, rejected and punished as a criminal then hung naked and ashamed on a cross for all to see. What will these disciples do with that? He warns them in verse 44 that the marveling will cease, the applause will stop, the crowds will scatter, the people who seem to be pro-Jesus now will be gone. The disciples see Jesus as high status now and want to associate with him. But where will they be later?
When we make it all about us and all about us, we fail as disciples of Jesus. That’s the simple message of this inside look into the inner circle of Jesus’ followers. They may be following Jesus, but they have a lot to learn. Our failures may even see a reaction of just anger from Jesus.
But notice what the failure actually is. The failure is that their eyes are on themselves. Who is this all about? Me. Who is this up to? Me. They are committing idolatry - they are putting themselves at the center rather than God at the center. They are worshiping the creation rather than the Creator. When we live this way, we are refusing to admit our weakness, inability, ignorance, neediness. We are refusing to get off the throne. We are jealous, competitive, comparing ourselves, excluding people. We are status-conscious and self-important. We ask, “What’s in it for me?” Is this how you approach your day, your week, your life? Is this how you approach your relationships?
This passage alerts us to a very real danger. Like the disciples, we can be doing Jesus stuff, using Jesus’ name, and hanging around Jesus people while at the same time making it all about us and all up to us. We can be religiously close to Jesus but relationally far. We can be involved in a bunch of Jesus stuff while our heart is far from him. We can be doing Jesus stuff and talking Jesus talk, but angering him as we do it because we’ve put ourselves at the center instead of God.
Our attitude should be one of humility and faith. We move from self-centered to God-centered. We think far less about ourselves and way more about God and his Son. True greatness is impressed with God’s greatness rather than our own. True greatness is concerned with God’s glory rather than our own. We summarize this as surrendering all of life to Jesus.
We need to let go of all worldly status. We follow a crucified Messiah, rejected by the world. We follow a King who moved toward the lowly and rebuked the proud. He came into the world to save the weak, lowly, and vulnerable. The extent to which we understand that we follow a crucified Messiah will be the extent to which we stop worrying about worldly status.
When I think about Simon Biles’ decision not to compete for many of the events in the Olympics she had qualified for, it’s a picture of saying, “It’s not all about me and it’s not all up to me.” Which is harder: to make it all about us or all about God? To make it all up to us or all up to God? We easily make it all about us and all up to us. But we need to surrender to make it all about him and all up to him. In doing so, we take ourselves out of the center and off the throne. We admit our weakness, neediness, and sinfulness. But in doing so, we are finally telling the truth about ourselves instead of trying to put on a show that we are better than we actually are.
Jesus invites us to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow him. To do that is to learn to say, “It’s not all up to me and it’s not all about me.” We learn to say, “It’s all up to God and it’s all about him.” We stop looking to ourselves and we stop living for ourselves. Jesus is inviting us into a whole new way of looking at and living life, where status is bestowed differently, where we lay down our rights, where we are not living at the center anymore, where we are relying on God not ourselves.
Do you think you’d be able to relax if you said that? Would that take a load off your shoulders? Do you think there’d be less tension in your relationships? What would change about how you live if every morning you said to yourself, “It’s not all about me and it’s not all up to me”? Think about this: Your worst moments are when you are making it all up to you and/or all about you.
We may think that Jesus will eventually get fed up with our weakness, neediness, and sin. Let this quote help you see that this is the very reason that Jesus came. “As a mother is tenderest to the most diseases and weakest child, so does Christ most mercifully incline to the weakest. Likewise he puts an instinct into the weakest things to rely upon something stronger than themselves for support. The vine stays itself upon the elm, and the weakest creatures often have the strongest shelters. The consciousness of the church’s weakness makes her willing to lean on her beloved, and to hide herself under his wing.” (The Bruised Reed, 10)
We can rest, relax, and rejoice in this truth: Jesus is always holding tighter onto us than we are onto him.