Luke 9:51-62, How to Fail at Discipleship

[June 30, 2013] In our following of Jesus through the Gospel according to Luke, we now come to a great turning point at verse 51 of chapter 9. Jesus’ Galilean ministry extended from 4:14 to 9:50. From here until 19:28, almost ten chapters, Jesus will be journeying to Jerusalem. After that, we have His royal entry into David’s royal city and His passing judgment on it until the day the Passover begins in chapter 22, when He ate the Seder with His disciples and after which He was arrested.

This verse, 9:51, is preceded by four accounts of the disciples’ ineptitude and followed by the same number of accounts of the same. In 9:37-43a they fail to heal a boy with a demon; in 9:43b-45 they fail to understand Jesus’ prediction about His being delivered into the hands of men; in 9:46-48 they quarrel over who is the greatest among them; and in 9:49-50 they try to stop someone from healing in Jesus’ name. These preceded 9:51. In 9:52-62 the disciples want to call down fire from heaven upon a Samaritan village; in 9:57-58 a would-be disciple fails to be realistic; in 9:59-60 a called disciple hesitates to proclaim the kingdom of God; and in 9:61-62 a would-be disciple fails to commit to the kingdom of God. We will examine these last four in a moment. The point here is that this whole section from 9:37-62 is transitional. The northern apostolate of Jesus reaches its end with His transfiguration on the mountain in 9:28-36, and the work of His apostolate during His journey south begins with His appointing seventy other disciples and sending them before Him in 10:1-16. 9:51 falls then in the middle of the transitional bridge between these two. The transition in part, at least, introduces what follows.

Jesus’ Face Is Set (Luke 9:51)

So let us consider 9:51, for this verse stands in contrast to the shortcoming of the disciples; it is about the steadfast determination of Jesus to carry out His Father’s will.

The translation in front of me says, “When the days were approaching for His ascension, He was determined to go to Jerusalem” (this is the New American Standard of 1995). The word for “approaching” (sym-plērousthai) is the present passive infinitive of “to fill up completely” (as when a boat is swamped) and occurs with “days” only here in the four gospels (it occurs again in Acts 2:1; a different verb is used in Luke 1:23; 2:6, 21, 22; and 21:22). A translation that makes something out of the literal sense—“But it came to be, in the completing of the days of His ana-lēmpsis, and Himself stiffened the face to go into Jerusalem, and he sent …”—would be more satisfying. Luke uses the construction, “and/but it came to be” plus “and” plus a finite verb, twelve times in his gospel and some more in Acts. It is a bit odd (Lucan, we say) but it is found in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, so scholars call it a Septuagintism. We might translate the first phrase, “When the days of His analēmpsis were completed …”

What then is meant by His ana-lēmpsis? It is a noun translated “ascension” and literally means “being taken or received up,” occurring only here in the New Testament. It derives from the verb, ana-lambanein, which is used in Acts to refer to the exaltation of Jesus into heaven. In this case, Jesus is being compared to Enoch or Elijah (Genesis 5:24; 2 Kings 2:11) and Moses. It does not literally mean “ascension,” which is an idea that developed in the Christian tradition based on Ephesians 4:8. However, the verb itself may be questioned, for the verse says that the days of His ana-lēmpsis were completed, that is, prior to this verse, which is not the case. What we call the “ascension” will take place at the end of the last chapter of the gospel and (perhaps another “ascension”) in the first chapter of Acts.

According to the Research Team of the International Institute for Gospel Studies, the reading of the verb may be ana-lampsis rather than ana-lēmpsis. It is, after all, another spelling of ana-lēmpsis during this period. The noun means the “shining forth,” and would make better sense in this context. The shining forth would refer to His entire epiphany (manifestation or showing forth) in Galilee culminating in His transfiguration on the mountain in 9:28-36. We would then translate it, “When the days of His shining forth were completed …”

In 9:22 Jesus disclosed to His disciples for the first time, in answer to their exuberant, “You are God’s Messiah,” that He would “suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and be raised up on the third day” (9:22). After this, on the mountain of His transfiguration, Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus in glory and spoke with Him of His departure (exodus) which He was about to accomplish in Jerusalem (9:30-31). Then a cloud formed (the Shekinah) and overshadowed them, and a voice spoke out of heaven, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen (sh’ma) to Him!” Everything that preceded this moment culminates here. From here on, Jesus turns to Jerusalem to face His death and the Father’s vindication of His obedience in resurrection.

Luke’s display of the disciple’s ineptitude is thus a transition to the journey that Jesus now takes, which is marked by 9:51 at its center.

“When the days of His shining forth were completed, Jesus stiffened His face to go to Jerusalem.” The expression concerning His face seems to derive from the Hebrew (Genesis 31:21; Jeremiah 42:15, 17; Daniel 9:3; it means to make up one’s mind to head in a particular direction) and some commentators think it echoes Isaiah 50:7. If Luke had added epi (as in Jeremiah 21:10; Ezekiel 6:2; 13:17; 14:8) it would have a stronger sense of facing opposition, but he did not. In any case, it speaks of His firm and deliberate resolution or determination to go to Jerusalem.

Even though Jesus knew what was going to happen, according to God’s will and fore-announced intention, and that it was written in Scripture and therefore could not but take place, only an insensitive person would construe this as meaning that it would be therefore be easy for Jesus to meet His destiny. He not only accepted it but He also had to chose it (see John 10:17-18). It was not just that He was determined to go to Jerusalem, but He was determined to lay down His life (His soul) there, according to His own words in 9:22-26, and to do so boldly and without shame (i.e., despising the shame of it). Jesus wanted His disciples to accompany—follow—Him emotionally, sympathetically, and not just physically, which is why He initiated them into the knowledge of what He faced (9:22 and 44). But “they did not understand this statement, and it was concealed from them so that they would not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this statement.” So He was alone in this knowledge and therefore had to face what was ahead alone, with the Father. Who concealed understanding from the disciples? Usually the passive verb is understood to imply the agency of God, or heaven. Perhaps it was not God but rather “the god of this world” who blinds the minds of unbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:4).

John has Jesus travel back and forth to Jerusalem from Galilee but in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) Jesus’ ministry takes place in Galilee and He only travels to Jerusalem this once, as far as we are told. In the synoptic gospels this is a literary construct. (If one is looking for a chronological account, they do not provide it.) In Matthew’s gospel, this final journey takes place during the section in which Jesus reveals the church and teaches His disciples about living in the church in the light of the kingdom of the heavens (13:54—20:34). In Mark’s gospel it occupies only chapter 10 during which Jesus teaches about discipleship in the light of the cross. Luke turns this journey into his major teaching section. He culls material from all the teaching sections of Matthew and adds the majority of his new material obtained from his own interviews of eyewitnesses. There is practically no agreement among the commentators about the rationale behind the organization of the material here. I have my own opinions. In any case, it sets His teaching, which is the content of all apostolic preaching, on the way to the cross, and therefore it is all set in the light of 9:23-26, which immediately follows Jesus’ first prediction of His coming passion: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me [to the cross]. For whoever wishes to save his soul will lose it, but whoever loses his soul for My sake, he is the one who will save it. For what is a man profited if he gain the whole world, and loses or forfeits himself? For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.”

Having said all this, this pivotal verse is still only the introduction to why Jesus sent messengers ahead of Him into Samaria. However, it helps us to understand the following four incidents in the light of Jesus’ own determination to go to the cross. In each case, the failure of discipleship is the failure to understand the “way” of discipleship as the way of the cross.

The Misunderstanding in Samaria (9:52-56)

Jesus sends messengers ahead of Him to prepare lodgings and so forth, as He will do again in 10:1. Samaria lies between Galilee and Judea and perhaps it was the Lord’s intention to travel straight through and perhaps minister in Samaria along the way or to arrive in Judea early. When, however, the elders, in the particular Samaritan village that we are told about, learned that He was traveling to Jerusalem, they refused Him. The Samaritans and the Jews did not get along; they tried not to have any dealings with each other (though we have several incidents when Jesus tried to ignore this). The Samaritans claimed—and still claim—to have descended from Ephraim and Manasseh and Levi (the Northern Kingdom of Israel). They worshipped at the site of the old tabernacle, on Mount Gerizim near Sychar, and did not recognize the dynasty of David and the claims of the tribe of Judah, David’s capital city, or the Temple which his son Solomon built. They also believed that the Judeans changed the religion of Moses after the Babylonian captivity (historically there is a fair amount of truth to this claim). Josephus tells us about a violent confrontation twenty years after this between some hostile Samaritans and Galilean pilgrims (like Jesus and His disciples) on their way to Jerusalem. Since Jesus was a revered teacher of Palestine (remember 7:40) and upheld the worship at the Temple in Jerusalem, they refused to extend Him any hospitality.

Jesus’ instruction in such a case was to “go out from that city, [and] shake the dust off your feet as a testimony against them” (9:5). James and John, though, out of regard for Jesus, thought that they knew what to do better than Jesus. Is not that always the way with Christians? They had no doubt that Jesus’ power was as great as the prophet Elijah—for they knew He could call down fire from heaven as Elijah did in 1 Kings 18:38 and 2 Kings 1:9-16. (We may also think of the fire that came down from heaven and consumed Sodom and Gomorrah.) They believed that this power was given to them on His behalf (though He only gave them power over demons and to heal diseases, 9:1). No doubt they wanted Jesus to do this out of their zeal for Jesus’ honor and their offense at the insult. We can imagine that behind this desire were prejudice, pride, passion, and a wish for vengeance (“we’ll show them!”). Commendably they thought it wise to ask Jesus first before they commanded the fires that they thought were within their control.

But Jesus rebuked them. Certainly this was not the first time people had been unfriendly toward Jesus, yet He never set such an example. In Matthew 11:23, He told Capernaum that “if the miracles had occurred in Sodom which occurred in you, it would have remained to this day … [indeed] it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom in the day of judgment than for you,” yet He did not destroy Capernaum. Instead His teaching in 6:27-49 was very clear. On the one hand, they were to love their enemies, do good to those who hate them, bless those who curse them, and pray for those who mistreat them. They were to go out of their way to be as merciful (or compassionate) as their Father (in heaven) is merciful. On the other hand, they were to withhold judgment and not condemn anyone, leaving all judgment to God, for God would judge the disciples by the same standard they hold up to others. Instead they were to pay attention to their own shortcomings and faults and splinters, and what kind of fruit they were producing, and not go around comparing themselves to anyone else. The addition of the words, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of; for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them,” capture the sense of the scene, even though the text probably just says that He rebuked them.

Christ would have us do good to all and harm none. We should not attempt to drive people to Christ by their fear, but by the appeal of love, by inviting and endearing them with His sweetness.

Jesus and His band went on to another village, as was always His apostolic practice.

What follows is an account of three persons who are would-be disciples. The first and third person offered themselves, and the second Jesus called.

A Lack of Realism (9:57-58)

The first person offered to follow Jesus wherever He went. This is what a disciple does. But this person was rash and had not counted the cost. If Jesus was poor and rejected in this world—and He was—His disciples had no right to expect better for themselves. If they expect better things for themselves, they cannot follow Him wherever He goes. When Jesus travelled, He took nothing but depended on the hospitality of others (9:3-4; 10:4-8), which meant that He was sometimes homeless.

Wrong Priorities (9:59-60)

In the second case, it is Jesus who calls the man. But the man asks that he may have a day or so to go and bury his father. Some think that his elderly father is still alive and he is begging to delay until his father dies so that he may care for his father as is proper. Our duty to our relations has to precede our duty to Christ, in his mind. The man has every intention of following Christ, but just not yet. When he is free of responsibilities, then he will. This makes sense.

Of course, that way of thinking is a trap. Jesus sees it and tells the man to let the dead bury their own dead. Does this mean that the man should forsake the care of his father? It seems that Jesus is saying that he should leave it to others. Having seen how families act with regard to their elderly parents, leaving the care of them to the closest sibling (however they rationalize it), I am not so sure that that is how we should understand Jesus here. In my mind, He ought not to be encouraging that (see 1 Timothy 5:16). What Jesus is doing is cutting away our excuses. We cannot use the care of our relations as an excuse not to follow Jesus and we cannot use our following of Jesus as an excuse to not care for our relations. Somehow we must find a way for the two not to contradict. The following of Jesus has to take priority, but it does not mean that we can forsake our ailing parents or our little children. I sound like I am contradicting Jesus here, but as a pastor, I’ll say it anyway. How I interpret this is that we should still care for our relations but our care for children and aging parents should not consume us, as it does for many. We can let our care for them burn us out so that we have no energy or time left for following Christ. This is a question of management, of setting limits and boundaries, of learning to say “no” to the expectations or demands of others and ourselves (perhaps our guilty conscience). We belong to God. We do not have the right to sacrifice our entire living on our children or our parents (unless God actually calls us to this). But we can follow Jesus and take care of our little ones and elderly at the same time. Only, the key is this: following Jesus will shape how we care for our little ones and our elderly. Jesus still has to come first. God has the first claim on our life. God does not take us away from living and its responsibilities, rather God claims our entire life, which includes our responsibilities, and sets them in a new order.

If we live like this, then we will be a blessing to our children and our aging parents. Otherwise, we are just their custodians, perhaps giving them too much of one thing when we ought to be giving them something else.

Perhaps when Jesus says, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead,” our usual interpretation is backwards. Usually interpreters say that this means that the spiritually dead should bury the physically dead, which, if you think about it, is an abdication of our responsibility for the dead (which is not right). What if Jesus meant, “Let the physically dead bury their own dead.” “If the dying are going to be burying anyone, let it be the spiritually dead. Not those whom I have called.” Or in other words, if I can paraphrase, “I called you to follow Me. I don’t want you being dead with the dead. I want you alive with Me. If the dying are demanding that you give up your own life to slave for them, say ‘No.’ Don’t let the dying bury you. There is another way to care for them without sacrificing yourself on the altar of their selfishness. Besides, it would be better for them. You’ll see.” Then Jesus says, “As for you,” meaning, “I have better things in mind for you.”

Jesus says to this individual, “But as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” These words were added to their source in Matthew 8:22. Matthew Henry takes this to mean that the individual only hesitated at first and afterwards yielded. He bases this on the fact that Jesus called him (citing Romans 9:16, and the fact that His calling is effectual, see 8:29-30). This might be making too much of the fact that Jesus took the initiative in calling this man, but it also might not be. I like the idea.

Lack of Commitment (9:61-62)

Another also volunteered himself, but there might be something half-hearted here, for he wants to go home and “say good-bye” to his family and neighbors. Apparently he wants to set his affairs in order so he can leave home. Again Matthew Henry has some useful suggestions here: First of all, that the man feels that he has to set his affairs in order makes it seem as though he feels as if he were going off to die and he would never see his family again. For this poor fellow, the prospect of following Christ is altogether a gloomy affair. In actuality, his following Christ would be a boon to his family and friends. He would end up being a comfort and blessing to them. Second, the fact that he feels he must say good-bye to them suggests that they may lie more upon his heart than if he were adhering closely to Christ. He “hankers after” them as if they are stuck to him (or he to them). This bond needs to loosen up. And third, his desire to go home and see his loved ones before he follows Christ suggests that he is willing to be tempted by them. Who more could sway him from his course? To go and say farewell to them “would be to expose himself to the strongest solicitation imaginable” to change his mind, “for they would all beg and pray that he would not leave them.” If we want to follow Christ, we must resolve that we “will not so much as parley with” this temptation. Loved ones often stop us from following Christ. This is why Jesus says that if we love them more than we love Him, we are not worthy of Him.

Here again, the great prophets Elijah and Elisha come to mind. When Elijah called Elisha by throwing his mantle on him (1 Kings 19:19-21), Elisha was in the process of plowing with twelve pairs of oxen, and he was the twelfth! (This was not a lazy man.) Elisha left the oxen at once and immediately said, “Please let me kiss my father and mother, and then I will follow you.” This is similar to the man in our text who asked to say good-bye to his folks at home. Unlike Jesus, Elijah said, “Go back again, for what have I done to you?” When Elisha returned, however, he took the oxen and slaughtered them and boiled their flesh with the implements of the oxen, and gave it to his neighbors and they ate. Then he arose and followed Elijah as his apprentice. In other words, Elisha went home to destroy the means of his livelihood, in effect shutting the backdoor and burning his bridges. He got rid of the temptation! The feast he gave was a farewell party the way Levi’s feast was when Jesus called him. How different this is from the individual in our text! Jesus, perhaps thinking precisely of Elisha plowing with his oxen, tells the man that he is no Elisha but he is hankering after his old life and is not yet sure whether he wants to follow Jesus.

It was an excuse, a way of putting off following Jesus, different than the excuse in verse 59 but the same in that both fellows wanted to put off following Jesus for later. In the first case the fellow wanted to wait until he was free (who is ever free?); in the second case he wanted to wait until he saw his friends and loved ones and perhaps they could reassure him that he was doing the right thing (they would, of course, do the opposite).

Jesus, who knows how to taste a person’s spirit, took the measure of all these people, and even of James and John in Luke 9:54. In effect He told them, “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of.”

A Word about Elijah and Elisha

In 9:54 the “sons of thunder,” James and John, wanted to be like Elijah and call down fire from heaven. And in 9:61 the would-be follower tries to imitate Elisha and go home to say good-bye to his folks before he followed Jesus. Both presumed that they could be like these great prophets. The great prophet Elijah was so awesome that he symbolized the prophetic movement in Israel, and of course appeared on the mountain alongside Moses when Jesus was transfigured. Elijah, however, is not a straightforward figure. He was, we might say, full of himself, and was rebuked by God Almighty for precisely this failing. His calling down fire from heaven was certainly dramatic, but did God approve of his zeal for the Lord of Hosts when he mocked the prophets of Baal and then slaughtered them all down by the Kishon Brook? Was this lack of divine approval the reason for his fear of Jezebel and the deep depression he fell into when he fled for his life into the Sinai wilderness, whining that he alone was left of those faithful to YHWH? Elijah was a theatrical prophet and loved the fact that he could command the forces of nature, holding back the rain and telling the king that there would be no rain, “except by my”—that is, Elijah’s, not God’s—“word,” and that he had the king (such a powerful enemy!) at his beck and call and could pronounce judgment on him without fear of reprisal. After the rebuke he received on Sinai, at the end of which God basically told him to anoint a replacement for himself in the person of Elisha (someone far more gracious than himself), he was quieter, but we see that his nature had not changed when he incinerated the messengers of Ahaziah in 2 Kings 1. As if for no better reason than that he was in a bad mood, he called down fire from heaven to consume a hundred men: “If I am a man of God, let fire come down from heaven and consume you.” It was still about himself. Certainly Elijah wielded divine power, but did he comprehend what he was doing with it? Jesus said, “Many will say to Me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in Your Name, and in Your Name cast out demons, and in Your Name perform many miracles?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you’” (Matthew 7:22-23). I am not saying that God did not recognize His prophet Elijah, for He received him up into heaven via a “chariot of fire and horses of fire.” But like Samson, Elijah is a complex figure and not one that we would do well to blindly imitate.

In fact, the literary prophets give us the true measure of the age of the prophets—when the kingdom of Israel divided between north and south and apostatized from YHWH. The prophets show us that Israel (Ephraim and Judah) had both come under God’s judgment, and God would treat them no different from the gentile nations that He had already rejected. Indeed, the prophets show us that the golden age of Israel was a myth (from a spiritual point of view) and that Israel had never really been faithful to YHWH and in fact had always been under the umbrella of God’s judgment (for His judgment is inseparable from His holiness). The glory days were purely provisional for the sake of the typology that they represented and the future for which they prepared. The axe of God’s judgment came over the northern kingdom with the Assyrian exile and the southern kingdom with the Babylonian exile. It did not end, however, with the return from exile. No, the axe was still laid to the root of the tree. The wrath still has not ended. The Second Temple was not a restoration of the First Temple, but only represented it, for it had not the Ark of the Covenant. The destruction of the Second Temple simply showed Israel where it already was since the days of the prophets. This is a difficult point, perhaps, to grasp, but it is implicit in Jesus’ whole ministry and explicit in the teachings of Paul. Jew and gentile have been rebelling against God from the very beginning! The privilege of the Jew is not that they exempt from God’s judgment.

It was the presumption of the zealots (and the zealous) to imagine that they were; that this was the meaning of their election. They imagined that by their own zeal they could bring about the kingdom of God. They simply had no sense of the gravity of the human situation, and that they could be no exception to it. This is also the error of those idealists who proclaim “American Exceptionalism,” and the heresy of Protestants who espouse this as a millennial doctrine. God has no special covenant with America and America cannot be compared to the uniqueness of the kingdom of Israel anymore than the kingdom of England can. Even the kingdom of Israel can only take its place—which it has by election—by the sheer mercy of God (Romans 9—11). The doctrine of American Exceptionalism does not take into account the judgment of God on human history—that it is universal in scope. If even Israel cannot evade it, certainly the United States cannot. This doctrine, if it has roots in Christianity, rebels against the judgment of the cross of Christ (the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all humanity) and hijacks the kingdom of God for the kingdom of the world.

No, this will not do. The way of discipleship is the way of the cross for everyone.

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