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A Series of Unfortunate Misunderstandings

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Any successful human endeavour, whether it is a family, a business, or a church, requires clarity of purpose to accomplish its goals. To achieve clarity of purpose requires good communication – a shared understanding amongst the team members about what they’re doing and how they’re doing it. When there is the opposite – when there is misunderstanding – it’s difficult to work well together to accomplish great things.

On one level, misunderstanding shouldn’t surprise us. Jean and I have been married nearly 30 years, and I’m still caught off guard at our capacity to misunderstand each other. We interact with the physical universe differently; we use words and understand meaning differently, and even after 30 years, we can still, easily misunderstand each other. How much more for the disciples of Jesus who were being introduced to a  heavenly perspective, to the priorities of God’s kingdom.

In Luke 9 we encounter a key, pivotal verse where Jesus turns and makes a conscious decision to focus on the next stage of his mission. But as he does so, his turning to mission is met with misunderstanding from his disciples. These disciples misunderstand his PURPOSE, they misunderstand GREATNESS, they misunderstand TEAM, and they misunderstand JUDGMENT.

One of the amazing facts of following Jesus is that he invites us to participate in his mission. But to participate effectively, we have to let him clear up our misunderstandings.

Our key verse is Luke 9:51:

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 

This is the pivot-verse in Luke:

Up until this point Jesus has been ministering in Galilee, mainly introducing himself through miracles and teaching, and calling a team of disciples that he is personally going to train to take his message everywhere. But he introduces them to the BIG PLAN – the plan to go to Jerusalem. And then he sets his face to go Jerusalem.

This is not so much geographic, although it does start in Galilee and it ends in Jerusalem. But Jesus made several trips to Jerusalem, and in this long section of Luke, he ends up in Jerusalem and back up in Galilee prior to his big entrance into Jerusalem.

  1. Misunderstanding PURPOSE

The purpose of Jesus isn’t the demonstration of power; the purpose of Jesus is atoning for the sins of people.

We looked at this text briefly last week, but I mention it again because it is the first of four sequential misunderstandings, all in a row, that Luke outlines.

But while they were all marvelling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, 

Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” 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 9:43-45

If you’ve ever felt like you didn’t ‘get it’ – this is the verse for you. Neither did the disciples – they really did not GET Jesus until after the resurrection. This is one of several key places where Jesus unpacks his purpose to the disciples, and they just miss it. So the point here is one of focus: Jesus is focused on his MAIN MISSION – going to Jerusalem to die for the sins of the world. 

This pivot-point verse follows a misunderstanding: after Jesus healed a boy afflicted by a demon, the crowds – and the disciples – were amazed and marvelling. Jesus grabs his disciples and says, ‘Not that, but this’.

The ‘that’ was his power demonstrated in healing the boy. The ‘this’ was that he was going to go to Jerusalem and die. The main thing was not Jesus being able to cast out demons; the main thing was that he came to save lost people by dying for them on the cross. By this point Jesus has already told his disciples at least twice that He is going to go to Jerusalem to die. And verse 45 says: They did not understand this saying. 

And this practice of misunderstanding Jesus continues into these other examples.

2. Misunderstanding GREATNESS.

Greatness is not position; greatness is relationship. Greatness comes by being rightly related to Jesus in faith.

In Luke 9:46-50 we read that

An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest. But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side and said to them, “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among all of you is the one who is great.

I grew up in the mountains of North Carolina; these peaks range from 3,000-6,700 feet above sea level. Leaving the Asheville airport, mountains that dominate the view gradually get relativized. On the ground some hills look massively higher than others; from the ground, we are comparing the mountains to our own size, and the mountain. But from the air, from 30,000 feet, the mountains all look like gentle variations; compared to the height of the airplane, the differences in the mountains were insignificant.

We tend to evaluate greatness from a GROUND perspective – we establish greatness by comparing ourselves with others. But only God is truly great, and when we compare ourselves to him, we ALL fall WAY SHORT.

In this text, Jesus teaches us about true greatness. To discern it, we can’t compare ourselves to others. RATHER, we need to make room for God by making room for people of faith.

v. 46: An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest.

We want to be great, but this implies that we understand greatness. To discuss who is the greatest means we have some criteria for evaluating greatness.  Our contemporary world suggests greatness is personal eminence or exceptional achievement. 

Luke does not give us the definition of greatness the disciples were using; we don’t know what paradigm or grid of greatness framed their discussion. Jesus corrects them on two points:

  • First, the process is wrong: the idea of arguing about GREATNESS is antithetical to the nature of his kingdom. The call is to pursue servanthood, to seek to bless others, not to be great. 
  • Second, the content is wrong: their understanding of greatness is inaccurate, and he corrects it to show them what true greatness is.

 47a: But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts …

The correction that Jesus gives is not simply based on the external conversation he overheard but on the internal motivations behind their argument. They weren’t simply trying to solve a practical issue in an impersonal, objective way; deep in their hearts, they all wanted to be recognised as GREAT. 

47b: took a child and put him by his side

Jesus uses a child to teach his main point. This child represents something special and important to Jesus. He explains it further in Matthew 18:3

And he said: "Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.

What is it about little children that makes them exemplars of access to the kingdom? They believe what their parents tell them. Now, in the case of earthly parents, what they are told might be right or wrong. But in terms of our heavenly Father, we can trust his word ABSOLUTELY, because 1) God doesn’t lie, 2) he has spoken in his word.

So to bring these two together, receiving a child means to receive a person of faith. It is not someone who is GREAT in the worlds eyes, but it is someone who is GREAT in God’s eyes. GREATNESS in God’s eyes relationship with him through believing his word.

 A child recognises that they bring nothing to the table. They know they don’t deserve whatever benefit is being bestowed because they didn’t work to deserve it. They depend on God, and they believe his promises.

Remember, all of this comes AFTER the transfiguration where God tells this disciples, ‘This is my beloved Son, LISTEN TO HIM’. Greatness is found in relationship with Jesus, and that relationship is linked to believing his word.

48a: “Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.

This is a ‘step parallelism’ in which the first though is raised a step higher in the second thought: a child is received as a representative of Jesus; Jesus is received as a representative of God. IF we make room for the non-great person, the person who has faith, WE are making room for God. Hospitality to the non-great believer is hospitality to  God and his purposes.

HERE’s the BIG IDEA: We show hospitality to God by making room for faith. We welcome God by welcoming those who trust in him. But the reverse is also true: those who don’t trust in God, those who disbelieve his word, may not feelwelcome in God’s presence; closeness to God requires believing him and trusting him.

Of course, we can tell people they are welcome, and we can encourage them to walk with us as they discover what it means to follow Jesus. But an attitude, a perspective, an orientation of FAITH is often uncomfortable for sceptics, cynics, and doubters. The reason is that faith implies there is a reality they cannot see. And this is exactly the case, which is why, EVEN when we welcome people, faith makes them uncomfortable.

FAITH, however, is the foundation of greatness with God – not that we’re great at all, but we believe God is great and are willing to take him at his word. So remember these three points: 

  • Greatness is not position; greatness is relationship.
  • Greatness comes by being rightly related to Jesus in faith.
  • Greatness means we make room for God be welcoming the non-great person who has great faith.
  1. Misunderstanding ministry

Ministry is not exclusive to an inner circle; ministry is the calling of every Christian

They misunderstand ministry: they thought ministry was exclusive to those who were in the inner circle; rather, Jesus describes a vision in which it will take MANY people to get the job done.

In Luke 9:49-50 we read:

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.” But Jesus said to him, “Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.”

This is remarkable - immediately after Jesus teaches them to receive others, to receive all, to make room for faith, they refuse to allow someone else to minister. It’s important to note that the ministry was in the name of Jesus. To minister in the name of Jesus implies that someone is standing on and grounded in the truth of Jesus.

And this is the point Jesus makes: people ministering in his name are on their side.

  • Someone who is not opposed to the disciples and who ministers at their side is for them, not against them.
  • Someone ministering with the disciples is on their side and should be encouraged.
  • The disciples’ ministry is not an exclusive ministry but will draw on many collaborators to complete the task.

 In Luke 11:23, Jesus turn it around: Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

Jesus seems to have often made this point, and it is a key, central, decisive point: failure to decide for Jesus leaves one in opposition to him. Only commitment to Jesus brings someone on to the Jesus team. So the material point is that allegiance to Jesus is the test of faithfulness; faithfulness to God is complete allegiance to Jesus.

But the ministry point is that it will take everyone who is faithful to Jesus to get all the ministry done that needs to get done. Effective ministry draws one closer to Jesus and should be encouraged. This mission that Jesus envisions will include others. At the beginning of the next chapter, Jesus makes the point that ‘the harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few’ (Luke 10:2). We have to make room for more labourers.

This can be difficult for those who are ‘early adapters’: the founding generation will have to make room for outsiders who join the family. We misunderstand ministry if we think it’s all up to us. Ministry is not exclusive to an insider club; everyone who is following Jesus has role to play. 

  1. Misunderstanding judgment

Judgment is coming, but not now; now is time to invite people to experience God’s love by repenting and believing.

Here’s what we read in Luke 9:52-55:

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. But the people did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tell fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” But he turned and rebuked them.  And they went on to another village. 

v.52 And he sent messengers ahead of him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make preparations for him. 

Jesus is on mission, and he sends disciples ahead to make preparations. The next verse indicates that ‘the people did not receive him’; this implies that the preparations were not simply finding a place to stay, but that, having previously sent them out on a preaching mission, they came into this village preaching ahead of his arrival, like John the Baptist.

The village is in Samaria: the Samaritans were a mixed-race people, part Jewish, part other, and the Jews and Samaritans did not like each other. The Samaritans only accepted the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. And they rejected Jerusalem as the place of worship; they worshipped at a place called Mt. Gerizim.

v. 53 Butthe people did not receive him, becausehis face was set towards Jerusalem.

So when Jesus shows up focused on going to Jerusalem and unwilling to endorse their worship at a different place, it is unsurprising they would reject him. It’s important to note that it was not only Jews who rejected Jesus, but others as well. 

v. 54 And when his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to tellfire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 

Recalling scenes from the Old Testament when God did judge with fire, James and John ask Jesus if they should call down fire on this village. This is fascinating on several levels: first, it seems that they assumed they had the authority to call down fire from heaven; they viewed themselves as on par with the chief OT prophets. They understood the seriousness of rejecting Jesus: they were zealous for the honour of Jesus, and they thought it was time to judge lack of faith powerfully and directly.

v. 55: But he turned and rebuked them 

Luke does not give us the content of Jesus’ rebuke, but it was succinct and sharp. The big idea is that the disciples were theologically correct but administratively wrong. They were theologically correct in that judgment comes to those who reject Jesus. They were administratively wrong in that now is the time to preach God’s grace and the call to repent; judgment is coming later, not now.

In the very next chapter, chapter Luke 10:13-16, Jesus himself warns towns about the future judgment that will come on them because they have rejected Jesus. He tells them that Tyre and Sidon – Gentiles cities in which Jesus did NOT do miracles – will have a more tolerable time at judgment. And he warns Capernaum, ‘And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades’.

In Matthew 13:30, Jesus tells the story of a farmer who was growing wheat, but his enemy came and sowed weeds amongst the wheat. Rather than pulling up the weeds and possibly damaging the wheat, Jesus says:

Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.

And then he explains it in Matthew 13:41-43:

The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law breakers,  and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear. 

Linking future judgment with fire, Peter warns:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. 2 Peter 3:10

So yes, fire is coming, but not now. Yes, judgment is coming, but not now: now is the time to share God’s grace by pointing to what Jesus did on the cross. Now is the time, in love, to invite people to repent and believe the good news.

The Big Ideas

1 – The mission of Jesus is centred on his death and resurrection – this is how he saves the people he saves.

2 – Greatness is not position; greatness is established through relationship with Jesus.

3 – Ministry is not exclusive to a few, but all of Jesus’ followers are called to be involved.

4 – Judgment is not now, but it’s coming; now is the time to invite people to experience God’s love by repenting and believing the gospel.