by D. A. Carson
The following is Chapter 4 of His Mission: Jesus in the Gospel of Luke , posted with permission
One of the things that we sometimes overlook when we study the Gospels is that each is ordered a little differently from the others. Part of the reason why we overlook this point springs from the way most of us have our devotions: chapter 3 today, chapter 4 tomorrow, chapter 5 the next day—and by the time we read chapter 4, we have forgotten chapter 3, and by the time we reach chapter 5, we have forgotten chapter 4, and so forth. As a result, our reading of Scripture sometimes becomes bitty.
But reading each Gospel straight through at a single sitting enables us to see the unique organization and order of each book, and therefore to learn some things in the Word of God that a more bitty reading may overlook. To take a very easy example, in Mark’s Gospel, miracles are scattered here and there throughout the book, and each is thematically tied to its own context. Matthew picks up a lot of those same miracles, but he puts them all into chapters 8 and 9. So we have Matthew 5, 6, and 7—the Sermon on the Mount, a collection of great teaching—then chapters 8 and 9—a collection of spectacular miracles. The same authority of Jesus that stands behind the teaching also stands behind these powerful miracles, by which Jesus heals the sick, casts out demons, stills the storm, and so forth. Clearly Matthew decided to adopt, at various points, a topical organization. Chapter 10 breaks off in a new direction again.
There’s nothing wrong with this (so long as an author is not pretending to be giving us a chronological order when he is giving us a topical order). The Holy Spirit, in giving us these Scriptures, has led these writers to do things differently so that we gain different slants and insights from the different Gospels.
About twenty-five years ago, I read the great biography of Oliver Cromwell by Antonia Fraser titled Cromwell: Our Chief of Men. Chapter by chapter, she follows his chronology until she gets to the years of the Protectorate, and then she writes four chapters that are purely topical in organization. Once they are behind her, she returns to a chronological ordering. Similarly, the Gospel writers were capable of structuring their books in diverse ways in order to enable us, their readers, to see things from slightly different angles.
The passage before us draws attention to an ordering that is unique to Luke. Luke 9:51:
As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.1
When you read the other Gospels, you discover that Jesus goes back and forth between Galilee and Jerusalem several times. But here in Luke’s Gospel, only at chapter 9, Jesus already is resolved to head toward Jerusalem in some final sense.
Some people have called this Luke’s travel narrative because now, in his ordering of things, Luke emphasizes again and again that Jesus is going to Jerusalem to die and to rise again. As the chapters unfold, Luke keeps reminding us of this point:
Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. (13:22)
Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. (17:11)
Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” (18:31–33)
After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. (19:28)
In other words, everything that takes place in Luke’s Gospel from 9:51 on takes place under the looming shadow of the impending cross. That is one of the ways Luke organized his material. That is the way God has given us this book.
Let us begin by considering Luke 9:18–56. And let us ask: How are the sections here linked? I propose to run quickly through the passage that is before us and show a couple of important lessons that we learn from reading this book in the light of the cross.
I want to make two important assertions that arise from reading the book of Luke humbly and carefully.
The Misunderstood Messiah
In his own time, Jesus is the misunderstood Messiah, but Luke’s readers see what Jesus’s contemporaries do not see—Jesus is resolved to go to Jerusalem to die and rise again. We shall see how that is worked out in five sections of this chapter.
Not a Conquering King
First, Jesus is God’s Messiah, but this Messiah will suffer, die, and rise again (vv. 18–26).
You may be familiar with the event that takes place in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the crowds say I am?” Eventually, Peter gives a straightforward answer that Jesus approves: “God’s Messiah.” Luke preserves a briefer version of Peter’s answer than the longer one preserved in Matthew 16:16: “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” that is, “You are the Christ” (Messiah and Christ mean the same thing). That means that Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish expectations. Messiah simply means “someone who is anointed.” In the Old Testament, kings and priests, and sometimes prophets, were anointed. That is why at least some Jews in Jesus’s day anticipated the coming of two messiahs—a kingly messiah and a priestly messiah. In the Gospels, the term most commonly refers to the anticipated kingly messiah: to say that Jesus is God’s Messiah means he is the promised King in David’s line. He is the Anointed One; he is the King; he is the Christ.
But the fact is that when Peter makes that confession, he does not mean exactly what you and I mean when we make that confession. When you and I speak of Jesus as the Messiah, we cannot help but include in that confession the assumption that Jesus is the Messiah who went to the cross, died, and rose again. At this point in his pilgrimage, however, Peter doesn’t have that category. That is made very clear in Matthew’s and Mark’s tellings of this incident, but it is hinted at in Luke, too. It shows up in Matthew and Mark because when Jesus goes on to talk about his impending death, Peter says: “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Matt. 16:22)—which shows that at this juncture, he cannot conceive of a crucified messiah. Messiahs win, he thinks; messiahs rule; messiahs reign—especially a messiah like this one, with spectacular miraculous powers at his disposal. What Peter means by confessing that Jesus is the Messiah is not all that the Bible teaches about Jesus as the Messiah. What he says is the truth, and he is blessed by Jesus for speaking the truth. He has some genuine insight and conviction on the matter, but it is not full Christian truth.
A similar point surfaces in Luke 9:21. After Peter confesses that Jesus is the Messiah, Luke comments, “Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone.” Why not? If he is the Messiah, why not announce it? There are different reasons for Jesus’s reticence in different parts of the Gospels, but here the plain reason is what they mean by messiah. What the crowds understand by this word is so bound up with triumphalism, sovereignty, and reign without the cross that in some ways Peter’s confession clutters up the expectations. Jesus is more likely to acknowledge who he is without cavil when he is talking to people in the pagan, heathen side of Galilee than when he is talking amongst the Jews. The pagans don’t have the same Jewish expectations. So here, in a Jewish context, Jesus commands these disciples of his not to say a word.
Then he tries to reform their understanding of what messiah means. He says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (v. 22).
This seems pretty straightforward to us, but there is no way that Jesus’s disciples understand these words at this time. Or, if they understand the words, they certainly don’t believe them. The strongest proof of this assertion is that when Jesus is finally crucified, his disciples are shattered. When he is in the tomb, they are not secretly celebrating, breaking out joyful instruments, offering adoring worship to God, and saying: “Yes! Yes! We can hardly wait till Sunday!” They still do not have any category for a crucified and risen messiah. They haven’t absorbed it.
Jesus doesn’t let it rest there. He then says to them all, in effect, “By the way, not only am I going to the cross, but if you want to be my disciple, you must go too!” That is his meaning when he says, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (9:23). Talk about not being very seeker-sensitive! “You want to be a Christian? Great! You’ll need to be crucified.” Oh, I know we have ways of domesticating the language a wee bit today. After all, for most of us, it does not mean actually getting nailed to or hung on a cross. It means death to self-interest and rising to newness of life. Even so, Jesus uses this extreme language because he is talking about an extreme death. Death to self is always painful—yet that’s what it takes to become his disciple. While they are still thinking of triumphalism and earthly power, while they are doubtless entertaining secret thoughts about which one can be on his right hand and which one on his left in the kingdom, Jesus himself is focusing on his impending death by crucifixion. Jesus is God’s Messiah, but this Messiah will suffer, die, and rise again.
Not Just Another Prophet
Second, Jesus stands in line with Israel’s greatest God-endowed prophets, but he utterly outstrips them (Luke 9:28–36).
We know the account of the transfiguration. Two figures appear with Jesus: Moses, representing the onset of the law covenant, and Elijah, representing the onset of the prophetic age. These two men are talking about Jesus’s “departure.” The word literally means “exodus,” a word choice designed to make us remember that all the Gospel writers are interested in showing how Jesus brings about a new exodus: an exodus out of sin that is the fulfillment of that earlier exodus out of slavery. But at the immediate level, Moses and Elijah are talking about Jesus’s departure from this world or (to use the language of John’s Gospel) his return to the Father with whom he had glory before the world began (John 17:5). In other words, they’re talking about what will take place in Jerusalem. That’s what the text says: “They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:31).
Never slow to stick his foot in his mouth, Peter says: “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah” (v. 33). Doubtless he thinks he is honoring Jesus. Peter is reasoning things out in his mind along these lines: “Moses is a hero from the past and Elijah was pretty spectacular too (just remember all those miracles!), and we would like to include you too, Jesus, because we have come to the conclusion that you belong to the same small group of spiritual elites.” Peter has no idea how impossibly wrong he is.
When I was a boy in Quebec, the English Bible that all of us used was the King James Version, and the French Bible that all of us used was the Louis Segond. Both of them were somewhat old-fashioned—the English one more so than the French one. So all of my early Bible memory work was from the King James Version in English or from the Segond in French. My father was a formidable Bible memory man: he had thousands of lines of text stored in his memory—in English, in French, sometimes in Greek, and occasionally in Hebrew. When he wanted to tell us something, very often he would quote various biblical lines. Sometimes he ripped them out of their context, not because he didn’t know the context, but because these were the categories that he used to express his thought. He thought in biblical language—in King James-ese, so to speak. So if we started complaining about the weather, he might say: “This is the day the LORD hath made. We will rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:24 KJV). And if we started spouting off about things we really did not understand (which, I’m sure, was pretty often), he would say, “He wist not what to say, so he said” (Mark 9:6 KJV; cf. Luke 9:33).
That is exactly what Peter is doing here: he does not have a clue what to say, so he speaks, and speaks inanities. When we do not have a clue what to say, the wisest thing in the world is to keep quiet. As the old adage puts it, “Better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.” Peter really does not understand who Jesus is, and God does not let him off the hook. A voice speaks from heaven, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9:35). God does not say this about Moses. God does not say this about Elijah. But he says it about Jesus.
The uses of the word son in the Bible are very diverse. Sometimes sonship is bound up with Davidic kingship: whenever a new son in David’s line came to the throne, God said, in essence: “Today, I have begotten you. I will be your father and you will be my son.” Because the king was supposed to so replicate God’s reign, justice, truth, and integrity, he represented God as God’s son, as it were. Sometimes son refers to Israel collectively; sometimes to individual Israelites; once to Adam as God’s “son”; and sometimes to angels. But on occasion, sonship is bound up with what later would be called the doctrine of the Trinity. The second person of the Godhead is referred to as “the Son of God.” And sometimes sonship, as applied to Jesus, is bound up with the incarnation of the eternal Son. Luke 1:35 tells us that the Holy Spirit so comes upon Mary that the holy thing to be born of her will be called the Son of God.
Moses doesn’t qualify. Elijah doesn’t qualify. Jesus is still the misunderstood Messiah. The disciples themselves, the privileged three, still do not understand. As long as they can lump Jesus into the same grouping that embraces Moses and Elijah, the disciples do not grasp the utter uniqueness of Jesus. But the readers understand. By the time Luke puts these matters down on paper, Christians, living on the far side of Jesus’s death and resurrection, understand perfectly well that Jesus cannot be compared with anyone else.
All of this is in support of a major point: in his own time, Jesus is the misunderstood Messiah, but Luke’s readers see what Jesus’s contemporaries did not see. Jesus is resolved to go to Jerusalem to die and rise again.
Not Eager to Linger
Third, Jesus alone has total power over the sick and the demonic, but he is about to depart (Luke 9:37–43a).
To see the power of the opening verses of this passage, you must read it without verse 41. Begin with the father’s plea in verse 38: “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child”—a desperate plea for help. Then verse 40: “I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not”—the incapacity of Jesus’s disciples to provide help. Now skip verse 41 and read verse 42: “Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the impure spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father.” In other words, in line with the first part of my third assertion, Jesus alone has total power over the sick and the demonic.
But in verse 41, Luke throws in some fascinating words of Jesus: “You unbelieving and perverse generation, how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.” In context, the “unbelieving and perverse generation” to which Jesus refers includes the disciples.
There are many texts in the New Testament that provide amazing insights into Jesus’s contemplative reflections. This text is one of them. A fair reading shows that Jesus had a really hard time being with us. I am not referring to the challenge of the cross. In this passage, Jesus is interacting with his disciples, who, despite the fact that he has given them authority to cast out demons, really have very little faith. He has given them authority to heal the sick, but their authority seems to extend only to easy cases. When a hard case comes along, they panic and then turn tail. They are scared. They do not have much confidence after all; their faith is not very deep. Jesus finds this not only disturbing, but wretchedly unpleasant. He says, in effect: “You are a wicked and perverse generation. You have no idea how difficult it is to stay with you. I’m really looking forward to going home.” Even though he knows that the way he goes home to his heavenly Father is via Jerusalem and the cross and resurrection, Jesus is eager to return to the glory that he had with the Father before the world began. Jesus alone has total power over the sick and the demonic, but he is about to depart.
Not a Power Broker
Fourth, Jesus again announces that he is about to die—and makes it clear why self-absorbed people cannot be loyal to him (Luke 9:43b–50).
Jesus says: “‘Listen carefully to what I am about to tell you: The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.’ But they did not understand what this meant. It was hidden from them, so that they did not grasp it and they were afraid to ask him about it” (vv. 44–45). Perhaps they do not want to expose their ignorance; doubtless they think that what he is saying has some really deep, deep meaning that is beyond them. But the most important reason why they cannot get it is given in the next verse (46): they are thinking in terms of greatness. While he is talking about his impending death, they are having an argument about which of them will be the greatest in the kingdom. This paragraph is parallel to the account we find in Matthew 20:20–28. Zebedee’s wife comes to Jesus and says, “Please, could James and John sit on your left and on your right when you come into your kingdom?”
Clearly, the apostles are not focusing on death at all, still less on destruction and persecution. So when Jesus says these things, they assume he is talking in some subtle, symbol-laden, metaphorical fashion that finally escapes them. They think they already fully understand what messiahship and kingship are about—and what they think they understand tells them it is high time to get on the ladder and climb to the top along with Jesus. After all, there are twelve apostles, and they cannot all be at the top, you know. They are certainly not clamoring to join Jesus in his suffering.
So “Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him” (Luke 9:47). Now, in some other passages, we are told to receive Jesus as a child does, that is, in simplicity. But look at the particular twist in Jesus’s words here: “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest” (v. 48).
They want to be close to Jesus, because they esteem Jesus to be great and becoming greater. But Jesus says, in effect, “I want to see how you welcome a child.” If you welcome a child, you are not intent on scrambling up a bureaucratic ladder to the top of officialdom. You are not burnishing your resume in order to become secretary of state. The passage is not saying that Jesus is a mere cipher who can be confused with a child. That’s not the point. Instead of sucking up to Jesus in order to be associated with someone who has power, they ought to be happy to receive a little child. They completely misunderstand.
Verse 49 makes a similar point: “‘Master,’ said John, ‘we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.’” How pathetic is that! They not only want to climb up the ladder to establish who among the Twelve will be minister of defense and who will be secretary of state in the kingdom, but they also want to crush any party that might provide any competition in this religion business. There might be some other people out there who have some connection with messianic hope, and Jesus’s disciples do not want them to play the game at all. Sadly, the disciples do not even raise the question as to whether the other group is doing any good, speaking the truth, healing the sick, or doing any real life-transforming work. They are not thinking in terms of ministry, service, or fruitfulness. They are thinking about the scramble for power.
This is why self-absorbed people cannot truly grasp who Jesus is, why they cannot be loyal to him. Jesus remains the misunderstood Messiah as he trudges along the road to Jerusalem.
Not an Avenger
Fifth, Jesus heads toward Jerusalem to be killed, but he forbids killing the Samaritans who do not welcome him (Luke 9:51–56).
Jesus now explicitly discloses his resolve to go to Jerusalem to accomplish his “exodus,” but any reader of Luke’s Gospel knows that this departure is by way of the cross and the resurrection. In some ways, this is a relief for him. He is leaving a rather messy, sinful, and unbelieving situation behind. At another level, his resolve to go to Jerusalem entails spectacular anticipation. He will return to the glory that he had with the Father before the world began (to use the language of John 17:5). At still another level, this resolution brings raw terror, for it brings him to Gethsemane and Golgotha: “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). But nothing will weaken his resolve to head to Jerusalem.
So why are the Samaritans introduced here? What does this brief narrative have to do with anything? Geographically, if Jesus is in the north and is heading south to Jerusalem, he can avoid crossing through Samaritan territory by slipping across the Jordan River and heading down the East Bank. Of course, it’s more direct to go through Samaria, and that is what he does. But when he wants a little help along the way, the Samaritans do not want to provide any because he is going to Jerusalem. There is no love lost between Jews and Samaritans, but the Samaritans’ reluctance to provide the courtesies that are offered to most strangers springs from more than racial antipathy. Jesus is going to Jerusalem for the Passover, one of the great Jewish feasts. The Samaritans do not want to support anybody who is going to Jerusalem and its temple for the Jewish feasts. The Samaritans utterly reject any authority from the temple. As far as they are concerned, the legitimate books of the Old Testament end with Deuteronomy. All the later material about David, Jerusalem, and kingship was, they believe, not given by God, but added to the Pentateuch by avaricious Jews who wanted to consolidate religious power for themselves. The Samaritans feel they have the true religion—it is just based on the Pentateuch. They had built their own temple in the area of Gerizim and Ebal, so no trips to Jerusalem for them. Relations between Jews and Gentiles were so bad about a century and a half earlier that the Jews invaded Samaritan territory and destroyed their temple. So when the Samaritans see that Jesus is heading for Jerusalem, they have nothing to do with him.
Jesus’s disciples, full of loyal zeal, suggest that they should call down fire from heaven to wipe out these wretches. After all, Jesus is the true Messiah! He is the promised King! Elisha called down fire from heaven just for being called “Baldy!” (2 Kings 2:23), and surely the Samaritans’ offense is greater than that. Wouldn’t the destruction of the Samaritans be justified?
They do not foresee, of course, that when they arrive in Jerusalem, they will all abandon Jesus and flee, refusing to be identified with him, just like these Samaritans. All of them will distance themselves from Jesus—Peter with curses. Should Jesus kill the Samaritans? Okay, then, should he kill his disciples for the same sins?
Of course, when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to die, instead of the Samaritans, instead of the disciples, everything will be turned on its head. When he gets to Jerusalem, crowds will cry: “Crucify him! Crucify him!” Should he call down fire on them too? It was my sin that held him there on the cross. Should he call down fire on me? And the answer to all those questions is—yes. On one level, he should. To reject the incarnate God-man, who is heading to Jerusalem to give his life—what terrible blasphemy is that?
But Jesus does not let it happen; he does not call down fire from heaven on the Samaritans. He does not call down fire from heaven on his disciples. Why not? Because he is resolved to go to Jerusalem, where he will die on the cross for sinners. In his own day, he is the perpetually misunderstood Messiah.
So here is this first point: in his own time, Jesus is the misunderstood Messiah, but Luke’s readers see what Jesus’s contemporaries do not. Jesus is resolved to go to Jerusalem to die and rise again.
But there is a second crucial point that is established by Jesus’s resolve to head to Jerusalem. I shall tell you what it is, and then we shall scan three ensuing passages to make the point clear.
The Clarifying Cross
In his own time, Jesus is the misunderstood Messiah, but Luke’s readers see, as Jesus’s contemporaries do not, how everything that takes place in Jesus’s life is clarified because it falls under the shadow of the impending cross.
Let me show you how this works out.
First, begin with the next little section, 9:57–62. There are three men who either want to follow Jesus or who are challenged to do so. The first says, “I will follow you wherever you go” (v. 57). Oh, good: baptize him and get him to tell his testimony. But Jesus replies, “Foxes have dens and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (v. 58). Jesus says to another man, “Follow me,” but the man replies, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father” (v. 59)—which, in Jesus’s view, disqualifies him. The third man Jesus dismisses on similar grounds, and concludes, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for service in the kingdom of God” (v. 62).
If you read through these verses in a straightforward manner that largely ignores the flow of Luke’s Gospel, you can still make a lot of sense of them. Jesus turns away would-be disciples, even invited would-be disciples, who are halfhearted or unwilling to face certain costs. In Bibles that have outlines in them, this passage is often titled, “The Cost of Being a Disciple.” But now read the passage again, this time remembering that Jesus speaks these words as he is on his way to Jerusalem and the cross. What does this perspective add? Immediately we perceive that these verses do not constitute a merely abstract reflection on the nature of the cost of discipleship. Rather, what is in view is the cost of following a Savior who goes to the cross on our behalf. The only adequate response to such self-sacrifice is unqualified devotion: we must follow him with our own self-death; we must take up our crosses and follow him.
Second, consider Luke 10:1–20, a passage that is really quite moving. Jesus commissions a number of followers, seventy or seventy-two, to engage in kingdom work, and they come back thoroughly delighted with the results: “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name,” they say (v. 17). He replies: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (vv. 18–20).
The meaning of the passage, taken on its own without worrying too much about the flow of thought in Luke’s Gospel, is pretty straightforward. Your identity is not bound up with your ministry; it is bound up with your election: “Your names are written in heaven.” Many of us in ministry spend a great deal of our lives struggling with the ferocious giant called envy, as we foolishly tie our identities and significance to the scope of our ministries, and then resent those who are more fruitful. But Jesus insists we are to rejoice because our names are written in heaven, not because of our fruitfulness in ministry. The passage is clear enough, and very powerful.
Nevertheless, the passage becomes even more powerful when we remember that Jesus says these words on the way to Jerusalem. In the light of the fact that Jesus is resolved to wend his way to the cross, the words “rejoice that your names are written in heaven” take on an additional significance. On what basis have their names been secured in heaven? They are secured because Jesus is on the way to the cross. The disciples are mandated to rejoice because Jesus’s atoning death is precisely what secures their place in heaven. The spectacular grace they have received, so much more important than mere power in ministry, is tied immovably to Jesus’s resolution to go to Jerusalem. While they are being slightly triumphalistic about their own ministry, Jesus is going to the cross to secure their salvation.
The Ultimate Good Samaritan
Third, what shall we say about the parable of the good Samaritan (10:25–37)? In some circles, this parable means nothing more than this: if you want to be a Christian, love your neighbor as yourself. Doesn’t Jesus end by saying, “Go and do likewise” (v. 37)? Some believe this is what it means to be a Christian. For some interpreters, this is how you become a Christian.
As was the case with the last two passages we scanned, we must first read the passage closely before asking ourselves what additional light is shed on it when we recall that Jesus tells this parable on his way to Jerusalem and the cross. The parable is structured in two dialogues. In each of these dialogues, the lawyer asks a question; Jesus responds not with an answer, but with his own question; the lawyer answers Jesus’s question; and Jesus finally answers the lawyer’s question.
Look closely, beginning with verse 25: “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” That’s the initial question, the question posed by the expert in the law. Jesus answers with his own question: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” The expert in the law answers Jesus’s question with two biblical texts: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Only then does Jesus answer the lawyer’s initial question: “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live” (v. 28).
When Jesus says, “Do this and you will live,” some readers take him to mean something like this: “Go ahead. That’s how you get saved. Do this and you will live.” But that is certainly not how this man understands Jesus’s words. It is important to remember that on another occasion, Jesus himself quotes the same two passages to which the lawyer appeals, but when he does so, it is in an entirely different context. Read the account in Mark 12:28–34. A different lawyer there asks Jesus what are the two greatest commandments of the law. Jesus replies, in effect, “The first is love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength (Deuteronomy 6), and the second is love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19).” In other words, when Jesus quotes these passages, he is not answering the question: “How do I get into heaven? How do I inherit the kingdom? How do I finally secure salvation?” Rather, he is answering the question, “What is the greatest commandment in the law?” The lawyer in our passage in Luke 10 quotes these two Old Testament texts to argue that the way you inherit eternal life, the basis on which you are accepted by God, is by obeying these two laws: love God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. So Jesus replies, in effect: “Brilliant answer. Go ahead. That’s all you have to do to get in.”
Does anyone you know genuinely love God with all his heart, soul, mind, and strength? On rare occasions, we might love our neighbors as ourselves, but even then we ruin it by patting ourselves on the back for doing so. Does anyone you know genuinely love her neighbor as herself? If those are the conditions for getting in, no one is getting in: we are all damned. In other words, when Jesus says, “You have answered correctly. Do this and you will live,” he is exposing the man’s utter folly. The lawyer’s lack of realism, his lack of self-understanding, is frankly appalling. That is why Jesus says, in effect: “Are you serious? Go ahead. Try it. If you succeed, you’re in.” Realization dawns; the man knows he’s been nobbled. That is why he seeks to justify himself (Luke 10:29).
This desire to justify himself prompts him to ask another question, thus initiating the second dialogue: “And who is my neighbor?” he asks (v. 29). Once again, Jesus does not immediately answer the expert’s question, but asks his own question. In order to set up his question, Jesus tells the parable of the good Samaritan: A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho; he was attacked, robbed, beaten up, and left for dead; and three different men came upon him lying by the road and displayed various responses to his misery. Once Jesus has finished the parable, he asks his question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The expert in the law replies, “The one who had mercy on him.” Jesus tells him, “Go and do likewise,” and thus, the second dialogue comes to an end.
One of the minor themes in Luke’s Gospel is self-justification. It is worth pausing to think about that. In the Bible, justification is that act by which God declares guilty people to be just because of the action of another, namely Christ Jesus, who bore our sins in his body on the tree. That’s justification. God declares sinners to be just. Self-justification occurs when sinners declare themselves to be just: they justify themselves.
That is what the expert in the law is doing with his question. He wants to justify himself to prove that he is really just; perhaps he really is good enough to inherit eternal life.
Attempts at self-justification keep recurring in Luke’s Gospel. For example, in Luke 16, Jesus talks a while about money. Then Luke tells us: “The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. He said to them, ‘You are the ones who justify yourselves in the eyes of others, but God knows your hearts. What people value highly is detestable in God’s sight’” (vv. 14–15). In other words, they are justifying themselves on the basis of their wealth: “God must love me and accept me since he has blessed me with a wonderful amount of money.”
Then, in Luke 18, we find the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness [that is, they justified themselves] and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’” (vv. 9–13)
And what does Jesus say? “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God” (v. 14). One man justifies himself, but it doesn’t win anything. His self-justification is part of what condemns him. The other man is justified by God. And this justification is all that counts.
The lawyer in our passage in Luke 10 belongs to those who justify themselves. That is why he asks his further question. And that is why Jesus exposes the man’s pathetic excuses. After narrating the parable of the good Samaritan, Jesus, as we’ve seen, asks this question: “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” (v. 36). While the man wants to ask, “Who is my neighbor?” so as to make excuses for himself, Jesus exposes the man’s moral bankruptcy by asking a different question: “To whom are you the neighbor?”
So the parable of the good Samaritan is fairly straightforward. But now we must reflect on the fact that Jesus tells this parable on his way to Jerusalem, on his way to the cross. Who is the ultimate good Samaritan? As Jesus tells the story, the good Samaritan is a figure who looks after a broken and bruised unknown man who has been left for dead at the side of the road. The Samaritan owes this injured man nothing, but he risks his life for him, spends his own wealth to look after him, and provides him with a ride while he himself walks. Moreover, because he pays for his expenses on an open-ended account, he saves this poor wretch from slavery. Under the laws of the day, if the man cannot pay the innkeeper for the further weeks of care (And how could he? He had been robbed of everything, including his clothes.), he will have no choice but to sell himself into slavery to the innkeeper because he cannot discharge the debt. The Samaritan’s generosity saves the man not only from death but from slavery. So again we ask the question: Outside the narrative world of the parable, who is the good Samaritan? Who acts this way?
If you ask that question while remembering that Jesus is on the way to the cross, it looks a little different. Who is the ultimate good Samaritan who comes to broken people, who, if left alone, will certainly die? Who binds up their wounds, saves their lives, and frees them forever from slavery, paying for all of it? You simply cannot fail to see that the ultimate good Samaritan is this Jesus who is on the way to Jerusalem—precisely because he is on the way to Jerusalem. Now that is not Jesus’s point when he tells the parable of the good Samaritan. But Luke has so configured the parable in the portion of his Gospel that reports Jesus’s resolution to go to Jerusalem that you cannot fail to see that this is the case.
In his own time, Jesus is the misunderstood Messiah, but Luke’s readers see, as Jesus’s contemporaries do not, how everything that takes place in Jesus’s life is clarified because it falls under the shadow of the impending cross.
A Life Aimed toward Jerusalem
First, away with all attempts to drive a wedge between Jesus’s teaching on the one hand and his death and resurrection on the other. For a long time, books have been written with titles like The Teaching of Jesus, The Teaching of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, or The Teaching of Jesus in Luke. Such books begin with the author telling us something like this: “In this book, I am not going to talk about the passion narrative. I’m not going to mention the cross and resurrection. I’m going to focus exclusively on the teaching of Jesus.” Without exception, such books distort the teaching of Jesus, for when you read the Gospels carefully, you discover that Jesus teaches with the cross in view. That is why some wag has said the four Gospels are essentially passion narratives with extended introductions. In no Gospel is this more obvious than in Luke. Jesus expresses his resolve to go to the cross—and all of his teaching has to be put under the looming shadow of the impending cross. If you try to present the teaching of Jesus by itself, stripped of what it points to, you end up with a great deal of moralism that sadly overlooks the cross and resurrection toward which all four canonical Gospels are rushing.
Second, away also with all attempts to say that Luke is not much interested in the atonement. Many commentators say this. They may point to the fact that Luke does not have a parallel to Mark 10:45 (cf. Matt. 20:28), which states clearly that Jesus came “to give his life as a ransom for many.” Yet Luke preserves many ways of focusing on the cross, and one of the most dramatic is the way in which Jesus resolutely sets his face to Jerusalem. And when he reaches Jerusalem, during his final meal before the cross, he breaks the bread and takes the cup, insisting that this cup is the new covenant in his blood, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. This book has its own way of being saturated with the atonement.
Third, and above all, we cannot rightly read Luke’s Gospel without reflecting long and hard on the christological implications of Jesus’s resolve to head to Jerusalem. Are you among those who think Jesus was a fine man, but no more? Or perhaps even a fine prophet, but no more? Luke will not allow you to read Jesus this way, and if you try to do so, you will end up with self-justification and you will die. In reality, Jesus is resolved to go to Jerusalem, and you cannot know the real Jesus without seeing him on the cross and seeing him emerge from the empty tomb.
Or are you among those who think of Jesus in merely therapeutic terms? Jesus becomes a bit like the man from the TV commercial for Britain’s Automobile Association: Jesus is a nice man; he’s a very nice man; he’s a very, very, very nice man. And when you break down, he comes along and fixes you. And so all the focus is on you and your brokenness. But the real Jesus, the historical Jesus, is resolved to go to Jerusalem. His fixing of people is radical. He goes to the cross, bears their sins, and pours out his transforming Spirit on them, commanding them and enabling them to take up their crosses and follow him.
There is a fountain filled with blood,
Drawn from Immanuel’s veins;
And sinners plunged beneath that flood,
Lose all their guilty stains.2
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.3
Jesus resolved to go to Jerusalem.
Chapter 4 of His Mission: Jesus in the Gospel of Luke
1Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture references in this chapter are from The Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
2From the hymn “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” by William Cowper, 1771.
3From the hymn “My Hope Is Built on Nothing Less” by Edward Mote, 1834.