[May 24, 2009] Today (Luke 9:1-17) we have read a number of stories that end and begin different themes, weaving them together.
In 4:16-30 Jesus announced the Messianic “Year of Jubilee” or time of liberation heralded by Isaiah.
Then in 4:31—7:17, after setting up base in Capernaum, He toured the region of Galilee liberating people from their bondage and calling them to become disciples, to enter the place of blessedness, or Jubilee.
In 7:1—8:21 He demonstrates that He liberates through the power of His Word and emphasizes the importance of “taking heed how you hear,” for the Word must also take root and be followed.
This theme continues in 8:22-56 in the story of four miracles. These miracles foreshadow, as allegories, the coming mission of the church among the Gentiles, during which the Messiah continues to be faithful to the Jews who believe, which ends with the resurrection of Israel from the dead. It introduces 9:1-6.
In 9:1-6 this little section is fulfilled with Jesus sending out the Twelve, whom He had chosen in 6:12-16, with the power of the Word, to do as He has done. It is a miniature of the Day of Pentecost when the church is equipped with the Holy Spirit to bear witness to Jesus by proclaiming the Gospel.
King Herod (9:7-9) represents the worldly powers. He is interested in Jesus but his motives are impure. He wants to be in control and his curiosity is based on paranoia. The mission of the church gets the attention of the worldly powers, but we must understand that the world always has a desire to dominate. The church, especially among the Gentiles, is always in danger of either persecution or seduction. We have a long history to prove this.
Then in 9:12-17 Jesus satisfies the multitude with bread and fish. The section on mission concludes for now with this image. It is Jesus’ last public act in Galilee before He leaves to go Jerusalem for the last time. (His final journey to Jerusalem comprises the largest section of the Gospel according to Luke). The feeding of the multitude shows Jesus as the Lord of the Feast, the Lord of Jubilee, and thus it capitulates the announcement He made in Nazareth, that He was the agent of the Messianic Jubilee in which God’s promises to Israel would at last be fulfilled—summarized in Deuteronomy by the theme of the Promised Land as a place of food and satisfaction.
But Jesus does not turn His face to go to Jerusalem until the disciples know who He is. The question that Herod asked in 9:9, “Who is this?” was asked earlier by the disciples in 8:25. This question has been on the table since John the Baptist sent his disciples in 7:19 to ask Jesus, “Are You the Coming One?” Jesus has answered this in all that has happened so far. Imagine seeing some of these signs before your eyes. Twice Jesus raised someone from the dead! Always it is the power and authority of His own Person at work, and that power is conveyed through the Word to faith.
After Jesus feeds the multitude, He asks His disciples in 9:18, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” and they answer in almost the exact same words with which the people answered Herod. Then He asks them what they say, and Peter says, “The Messiah of God.” Only after this does He reveals to them what kind of Messiah He really is—He speaks of His going to the cross and dying and rising again (and that they too must go this way if they would be His disciples). He then takes three disciples up on the slope Mount Hermon in Syria and there He is unveiled so that His hidden glory is seen by them and they hear the voice of the Father say, “This is My Son, the Chosen One. Hear Him!” (The last two words again emphasize the importance of His Word.) This revelation concludes the first half of the Gospel according to Luke.
The Mission of the Twelve (Luke 9:1-6)
The mission of the Twelve is a miniature of the mission of the church. It is, of course, a mission to the towns and villages of Galilee, as later the sending of the Seventy (10:1-20) will be a mission to the towns and villages of Judea. In Acts, the mission of the church will be to the ends of the earth, and not only among Jews but also to Gentiles. This first mission, given here at the end of Jesus’ Galilean ministry, was apparently not very successful. Their return is accompanied by silence, unlike the return of the Seventy in 10:17, and there Jesus pronounces “Woe” to several cities in Galilee (10:13-15). This corresponds to Matthew 11-12 which details the rejection of Jesus during and following the sending of the Twelve. Nevertheless, Luke does not speak of this rejection, but in keeping with his more positive tone, bypasses it in silence, reserving Jesus’ most dire warning for Jerusalem itself. Let us consider this mission, then, by itself.
Jesus sends the Twelve out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick and He gives them His own power and authority over demons and disease. In other words, not because they are qualified in themselves, but simply as His representatives, He equips them with the anointing of the Holy Spirit that lies upon Him in order for them to speak His Word. His Word, when spoken by His sent ones, has the same power and authority as when He Himself speaks it. His Word even in the mouth of His messengers, conveys the power and authority of His own Person.
He sends them out to do what He has been doing. Nothing different. Power over demons, and power to heal the sick are signs that accompany their proclamation of the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God refers to the Messianic Jubilee, the time when God fulfills His promises to Israel and overcomes evil in the world. The kingdom of God refers to the coming kingdom, the “age to come.” The signs are foretastes of that age. But that kingdom is already present in the Person of Christ and in the power of His Word. It is already present for the disciple, the one who believes in Jesus. Even though they are poor and hungry and grieving, they are blessèd. It is present, but concealed.
The signs accompany the apostles in the Acts of the Apostles, but they are always signs of the coming age, the coming age that is already present in the Person of Jesus Himself. The church lives in the old age, the time of judgment, because Jesus has left us (see Luke 22:35-37). We are called to the way of the cross. But also the church participates in the age to come, in the power of the resurrection, because Jesus is still with us through the Holy Spirit. We live in both ages, under both conditions. The first requires faithfulness, the other faith.
Jesus sends them out to do mission in people’s homes. It is surprising that more attention has not been drawn to this. Probably this is because we are so used to the idea that a church building is where mission is carried out. We want to keep Jesus as far away as possible. The most “hospitality” that we are willing to give to Jesus is our Sunday offering, which represents how little worth He has for us. But Jesus sends the apostles out to be dependent on the hospitality of others—in Matthew He says that the worker is worthy of his wages. The mission takes place within the context of household hospitality and it is supported by that hospitality. People are supposed to bring the messengers within their homes, and it is there—in the homes—that the message is able to come to their neighbors. Instead, we create institutions (the “church”) that do the job. The day may come when the church will no longer have its own buildings and the institutional character of denominations will fail.
The Gospel is about a Person, and the Holy Spirit works interpersonally. If we make the Gospel impersonal, we leave the Holy Spirit out of it. The Holy Spirit may still reach the person but He will be doing it without our help. The modern world is a violent disruption of the natural personalism of human society. The mission of the church takes place only within the personalism that still exists. Please realize this.
The Gospel is not about information or ideas (“beliefs”). It is about a Person and our personal relationship to Him and through Him with one another. This is why the central doctrine of the church is all about the Trinity, because the doctrine of the Trinity is about Persons and Their relationships. That is the reality of it. The teaching only helps.
Jesus identifies Himself with the ones whom He sends. See Matthew 10:40-42; this is also the real meaning of Matthew 25:32-46. When we cannot offer hospitality to Jesus or to the ones whom He sends, we reject Him. When that happens, the messengers are to waste no time but they are to move on to the next town.
Perhaps this is the real crisis of the church in America. We have long institutionalized Christianity, especially in the era of civil religion since the 1950s when the message is no longer identified with the Person of Jesus but simply with public morality. But now we have lost the home to Him. The home as a place for individuals to interact as persons, in the Biblical sense, has been replaced by home as a private fortress, a place for media entertainment, a refrigerator and a bedroom. Families do not even have daily meals together. The explosion of digital communication does not replace this but rather trivializes it.
Notice one more thing. Jesus sends the apostles out to towns and villages. This is the pattern in Acts as well. The church is always local—local to a town or village. It is inherent in the very name “church” (ecclesia) which was the ancient gathering of the city’s citizens, the assembly. It seems to be God’s desire to establish a church in every locality. Except in large cities, the idea of a mega-church is unbiblical and anti-apostolic. If believers live in a town, that is where our Lord wants them to gather, not travel to some mega-church in another town. That is always the apostolic pattern. Unfortunately, we often see the church as an organization instead of a face-to-face community of persons who share their lives in a place. And ministers often want to build up their “ministry” instead of engaging in the Lord’s desire to have churches.
The Feeding of the Multitude (9:12-17)
The feeding of the multitude reveals who Jesus is, the Lord of the Feast. It is sandwiched between the people’s (and Herod’s) question, “Who is this?” (9:9, 18) and Jesus’ question, “But you, who do you say that I am?” Food is a central theme in Luke. Food and the act of eating seem to come up everywhere. Food symbolizes fullness and satisfaction—Jesus brings both. It also symbolizes reconciliation and fellowship, the coming together of persons. This is why the dining table in the home is so important. It is what makes the home a home, and it symbolizes the place where the church’s mission happens. Our modern world has privatized the dining table. We only eat with others on special occasions. In earlier, more personal times, the table was meant to be shared with guests, constantly. It is said that Abraham would not eat unless He had a guest at table with him.
So Jesus feeds the multitude at His own table. He feeds them miraculously—the provision of food is a sign of the coming kingdom. But notice that He does not feed the people Himself. He says to the disciples, “You give them something to eat.” This is very important. He tells the disciples to gather the crowd into groups of about fifty each, which is about the size of a healthy house-church. This is an interesting detail. Then He gives the bread and fish to the disciples and they feed the crowd gathered in these groups of fifty each.
This is a picture of the church, the fruit of the apostolic mission. The church is a place of eating, where Jesus satisfies us with food. In John 6 Jesus compares the bread and fish to the manna from heaven, and then says that He is the manna, the bread of heaven. In other words, He feeds us with Himself. This is what the church is. But it is up to us to gather in groups and to distribute this bread. Until the kingdom comes, Jesus is present in the church as the Presence of the Messianic Age, the Jubilee, our liberation and satisfaction.
This story concludes Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. It concludes His presentation of Himself as the Lord of the Jubilee. It concludes the emphasis on His Word—that we must heed—through which He is present in power. It also concludes the last little section on the mission of the church. It concludes with a picture of the church as a feast. May it be so.