[March 1, 2009] The word Lent means “lengthening” and refers to the length of the day. In other words, Lent means springtime. Traditionally it is a time of fasting, probably to cleanse the body of all the winter food people used to eat—meats and things that would keep in root cellars, not the refrigerated fresh vegetables that we are used to eating.
Christ resurrected as the first fruits of the harvest. On the first day of the week after the Feast of Unleavened Bread (the Passover) began, the priest offered the first ripened sheaf of barley to the Lord. No one could use or buy fresh barley until then. From the beginning, the church gathered every Lord’s Day (on Sunday) to celebrate the resurrection. We also know that in the beginning of the second century the church already celebrated an annual Easter (because they argued over whether it should always be on a Sunday or should correspond to the Jewish Passover). The practice probably goes back even earlier, when Jewish believers—who were once the majority—used Passover as a special time to remember the Lord’s death.
If the gospels were each written to be read by the churches annually, as I think they were (following Michael Goulder’s theory), then it was natural for “seasons” of meditation to form. Lent is a six week season to meditate on the death of Christ, which is appropriate given how much space each gospel devotes to Jesus’ last week and the night and day of His passion. So regardless of what latter traditions developed concerning Lent, we are not ashamed to take up the practice in an evangelical and apostolic manner.
Last Sunday we paid attention to when Jesus first announced to His disciples that He was going to suffer, be rejected and killed, and rise again. He was then transfigured before them and spoke to Moses and Elijah about His “exodus” in Jerusalem. After that, He left Galilee in the north and “steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.”
Discipleship in the Mold of the Cross (Luke 22:24-30)
We now come to the end of that journey. Jesus and His disciples are in the upper room and have just finished their last Passover supper together. (The Feast of Unleavened Bread begins the following day.) Jesus has just told them that He is about to be betrayed by one of them. And incongruously they begin to argue about which of them was the greatest. Were they arguing about the seating arrangement around the u-shaped table? Or were they already arguing over who was to be Jesus’ successor when He was gone? Maybe the first, but Jesus has also just told them that things are about to change.
Luke seems to have taken the pieces of this story from different places in Matthew’s gospel. Verses 25-27 correspond to Matthew 20:25-27; and verses 29-30 correspond to Matthew 19:28. There is also an echo of Matthew 18:1-5. Verses 21-27 seem to also correspond to John 13:1-20. You might want to compare all of these.
Luke has this here for a reason. These are lessons of the cross. Jesus does not only bear the cross alone, as the Savior, but He is also the pattern for the church. The church has the shape of the cross, and the mission of the church takes place in its mold.
Matthew shows Jesus entering into identification with Israel (and the Gentiles) under God’s judgment, and bearing that judgment in the mold of the repentance that is required of us. On the cross He enters fully into God’s judgment on our behalf. In this way, the cross in Matthew corresponds to the trespass offering in Leviticus 5. This makes sense since Matthew’s gospel is about Jesus establishing the kingdom of the heavens in the church and in Israel. The idea of the kingdom is God’s overcoming the opposition to His rule.
Luke’s gospel shows Jesus as the Savior whose salvation brings reconciliation and Jubilee (liberation) and peace. He is also our exemplar in mission, the model Apostle. In this way He corresponds to the peace offering in Leviticus 3. The peace offering was an offering that was eaten and shared by all who enjoyed reconciliation with God. Other offerings were either completely consumed or eaten by the priests. This offering was eaten by those celebrating. There was reconciliation with God but also with each other. Thus Luke characteristically celebrates eating more than any other gospel.
When Jesus and His disciples entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the disciples anticipated that “the kingdom of God was to appear immediately” (Luke 19:11). This was in the air around Jesus. So here the disciples are thinking, when it appears, who will be the greatest?
They were not thinking about the church that Jesus envisioned. They were still in their Zealot dreams of the Maccabean era. But Jesus characterizes that as a pagan notion. “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them,” He says. The way of the world that attempts to live independently of God, the world that is both alienated from God and in opposition to Him, seeks after power: people compete with each other to see who can get to the top and have power over others. They justify it by calling themselves “benefactors.” This title was given to the Greek rulers whom the Maccabees overthrew, and it was often given to the Roman emperor.
The way of the cross shows that divine power comes by the denial of the self. Among Jesus’ believers, the greatest must become like the youngest, a child in the midst of adults, and like a slave who serves others (See Matthew 18). There is power in this, but not the power of the soul or of the world, but the power of God in our midst. The church does not renounce all hierarchy, but it renounces it in its own government. It denies that the ego or the world offers us a true model. Christ rules the church through the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit’s government can only be discerned when we deny our self by true self-knowledge and thus renounce our own authority and power. As verse 32 shows, the knowledge of self cures us of the self.
Nevertheless, for those who “remain” with the Lord throughout His trials (verse 28), that is, who have learned the lesson of the cross and enter into the mold of the cross themselves, there is a reward. The reward is the kingdom of God when the opposition of the world is over. In this kingdom there is eating and drinking at the Lord’s table. Luke is fond of underlining this theme: eating and drinking speak of both satisfaction and fellowship. We will be united with the Lord and with each other in both fellowship and satisfaction.
In addition, there will be thrones. The thrones of the twelve tribes of Israel refer to the restoration of Israel spoken of by the prophets, and the Twelve were chosen with that restoration in view. (Thus the Twelve—as such—have no significant role in Acts or the Epistles. They are chosen eyewitnesses of Christ, and therefore are the selected bearers of the “Tradition” until the gospels were written. Other than that, their role is to be a sign of the restoration of Israel when the Messiah comes at the Second Advent. They do not seem to have any leadership role in Acts or the Epistles!
The kingdom of God rules (the idea of thrones) but not by worldly means. Christ slays His opponents with the breath of His mouth (2 Thessalonians 2:8). “Out of His mouth proceeds a sharp sword” and “His name is called the Word of God” (see Revelation 19:11-16), and with His sword He divides soul from spirit for there is no creature that is not manifest before Him (Hebrews 4:12-13). How interesting this is. He rules by light and love, not worldly power.
Exposed to Satan (Luke 22:31-38)
In the following verses Jesus gives a severe warning. In verse 35 He tells the disciples that as long as He was with them, He took care of them and protected them from opposition. “But now,” He says in 36, things are going to be different. You were like little children and I took care of you. Now you must stand on your own.
In verse 31 the “you” is plural (in Greek) and in 32 it is singular. Satan has asked to have you all to sift you as wheat, Jesus says. To sift the wheat is to purify the wheat by separating the wheat from the chaff. Calvin points out that this is not Satan’s objective. He just wants to toss them about the way that wheat is tossed when it is sifted. In other words, Satan wants to throw us into a tumult. But while Satan is tormenting us, God is sifting us.
Peter does not know himself. He has too much self-confidence. Therefore Jesus singles him out as the one who will most be able to restore his siblings. Why? His self-reliance will expose Him to Satan’s temptation. He will deny the Lord and be utterly devastated by His failure. His failure will ruin his ability to depend on himself. From then on, he would become afraid of himself. When the apostle Paul later humiliated him in Antioch (Galatians 2), Peter became the first person to speak up in Paul’s defense in Acts 15.
According to our way of thinking, failure disqualifies you. According to God’s way, failure is sifting. The chaff is our self-reliance, our reliance on an artificial self, a self that we have constructed with our own delusions. The wheat is that which God has created within us. It is our true self (in Christ) and it has a quiet but complete trust and reliance on God. Having come to self-knowledge through failure, the true self fears the false self (the soul) and surrenders to God.
Because Peter experienced this, he was better qualified to establish his siblings. The gospel of John shows this even more.
What does Jesus mean by His talk of purse and bag and sword? Before, He protected His disciples from opposition. Now, He says, the time has come when He will be counted with the lawless (verse 37). He will be treated as a criminal. When Jesus is taken away, the disciples will be exposed to the test, to Satan’s tossing. They will be scattered and hide behind closed door out of fear. That was then, but this also becomes the repeated experience of the church throughout Acts and in history since then. Jesus does not want us to be afraid, nor should we be passive. “He who has no sword, let him sell his garment and buy one.” Obviously He speaks metaphorically. Calvin says it is “truly shameful and stupid ignorance” to interpret this literally. But the disciples did. At the table the disciples continually misunderstood everything Jesus said. When they said, “Here are two swords,” He finally says, “Enough,” meaning, that He was done trying to explain things to them. He needed to move on.
What did He mean, though, by the sword? He means we should not be passive but to be bold by means of the word. This is what we see in the Acts of the Apostles. “We have renounced the hidden things of shame, not walking in craftiness nor adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of the truth commending ourselves to every conscience of men before God” (2 Corinthians 4:2). This transparent shining forth (4:6) is our sword, not any use of force.
We live in difficult times. We too need to stand up and be adults, not relying on our own strength but with humility and trust in God.
Jesus’ Prayer (Luke 22:39-46)
Jesus now goes to the garden of Gethsemane. In Luke we do not have the agony and struggle that we see in Matthew. In Matthew He separates three disciples to accompany Him, His soul is very sad, unto death, and He falls on His face, praying three times. Also, Matthew emphasizes the failure of the disciples. This is because Jesus is facing the judgment of God. It is truly horrific.
In Luke the agony is there in verses 43-44, but an angel strengthens Him, and we are not told that He is sad unto death. He kneels instead of falling on His face, and He does not pray repeatedly. Even the name Gethsemane, which means “oil-press,” is missing. And as elsewhere in Luke, the failure of the disciples is softened. Instead, Jesus seems to be in complete control (as in the Gospel according to John). He goes to the garden as was His custom, and in His prayer He submits to God’s will.
He is thus bold as our Savior and is also presented as an example for us to follow when we face “the test.” When Satan tosses us, we need to pray (verse 40, 46), and thus rely on God for strength and not on ourselves. We can pray for the cup to be removed, but we must also surrender ourselves to God’s will. In Luke, Jesus is the Savior but as such, He calls us to come with Him: the peace offering.