Luke 18-19 chronicles the high point of Jesus’ ministry. He is on His way to Jerusalem, surrounded by an exultant crowd. According to Luke 19:11, the throngs believed that “the kingdom of God was going to appear right away.” In other words, they anticipated that when Jesus came to Jerusalem, He would set Himself up at King David II and begin the glorious work of booting the Romans out of Jewish territory (and possibly even making the Jews the overlords of the Romans!).
It is in the midst of this euphoria that Jesus does something very strange. According to Luke 18:31-34, at the peak of His earthly popularity, He pulls the Twelve aside and reveals something to them that He doesn’t want the crowds to hear. Jesus’ trip to Jerusalem isn’t going to end with triumph over the chief priests and Gentiles. Instead, it is going to end with their triumph over Him. They are going to take Him, humiliate Him, and kill Him. After that, He is going to rise from the dead.
Not surprisingly, Luke tells us that this does not compute. The Twelve don’t understand it, not the humiliation and death part, and not the resurrection part. Why should it have? It fit into their preconceptions about as well as a fur coat fits into a PETA meeting.
Nonetheless, it is extremely important that Jesus predicted both His death and His resurrection. Not even a skeptic has much reason to doubt that He did so. The gospels report that He did so on three separate occasions, and Matthew 27:62-64 reveals that even the Sanhedrin has heard the story. Indeed, they ask Pilate to post the guard at Jesus’ tomb to keep His disciples from helping the fulfillment along themselves.
As Gary Habermas points out in The Case for the Resurrection, these predictions provide vital context for understanding the significance of the risen Christ. We have seen before that the evidence for the resurrection is quite good, even if we take a minimalist approach to the Scriptural witness.
However, merely accepting the resurrection accounts still leaves us adrift. If I were to die and rise from the dead three days later, that wouldn’t be any reason to build a religion around me. It simply would be a weird, inexplicable thing.
Jesus’ predictions provide the necessary explanation. It’s one thing to rise from the dead. It’s another thing to claim to be God, predict that you will rise from the dead, and then do so. The claims by themselves are lunacy; the resurrection by itself is incomprehensible. However, claim plus resurrection equals proof that Jesus is the Son of God. Here as elsewhere, the word gives us all the reason we need to believe.
As is true for all people, those of us who live in 21st-century America view reality through the lens of our culture. Because of our setting, we have many preconceptions that we don’t examine because our society shares them. We assume that X is how human beings think, and we don’t realize that many human beings in other times and places have not thought that way at all.
This is perhaps most obvious when it comes to our society’s view of sexuality. To tens of millions of Americans, sexual autonomy is the preeminent value. You are defined by your sexual inclinations.
This does not make as much sense as we like to think it does. Generally, we consider it odd when people define themselves by their appetites--what they like to eat, for instance. When we’re at a party, and a new acquaintance announces, “I’m a vegetarian!”, we start edging away. Self-identification by sexual appetite, on the other hand, is serious business!
For humankind, this is not typical. All societies consider sex to be important, but rarely do they regard it as central to existence. Traits that some Americans build their lives around were and are commonly ignored.
For instance, before the advent of Western cultural hegemony, many languages didn’t have a word for “lesbian”. When Paul condemns men having sex with men in 1 Corinthians 6:9, he has to invent one of the two words he uses to do so—again, because koiné Greek didn’t have an existing word for the concept. The emphasis that we place on sexuality is cultural, not innate.
It is hardly surprising, then, when Americans have great difficulty with Biblical passages that limit sexual activity. Recently, numerous writers have tried to narrow the scope of 1 Corinthians 6:9 (arguing that it’s about prostitution, for instance) or simply have rejected it entirely. Likewise, even among brethren, Jesus’ teaching on marriage, divorce, and remarriage in Matthew 19:1-9 is widely ignored.
The textual justification for these positions is scant. Instead, they are driven by our intuitions about fairness. It strikes us as unjust to ask anyone to be celibate, particularly if (as with those who are attracted only to their own sex or are unscripturally divorced) said celibacy will be lifelong.
This poses a significant interpretive hurdle for us. In Matthew 19:12, Jesus discusses choosing to be a eunuch for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. For all the sense that makes to modern Americans, it might as well have been left in koiné Greek!
We must recognize, though, that such a view is based on our culture, not on some objective reality. From Vestal Virgins to Buddhist monks, many people in many different societies have chosen to refrain from intimacy, sometimes for a limited time, sometimes forever. Such societies regard celibacy as difficult but doable, particularly in pursuit of a higher goal, and that’s every bit as typical, perhaps more so, as the hypersexualization of our own.
There are many reasons why Christians might choose to be unmarried or be required to be so. Maybe it’s not a path we would choose for ourselves, but neither is it the most awfulest horriblest thing ever to happen to anyone. It is entirely possible for the celibate life to be rich and fulfilling, particularly when eternal life will be the reward. Many throughout time would not have questioned this. In our own time, let those who are able to accept this, accept it!
When I was in law school, all my classes were graded on a B curve. 25 percent of the students in the class got an A-range grade, 50 percent got a B-range grade, and 25 percent got a C-range grade. As a result, my grades depended much more on the understanding of my peers than on my own grasp of the material. If I understood next to nothing about the class, but my classmates were completely clueless, I would get a good grade. If, on the other hand, I nearly had mastered the material, but my classmates understood it fully, I. . . wouldn’t. My GPA was about them, not me.
Well, it probably was about my horrible handwriting too, but that’s another story.
Similarly, there are lots of people out there who want to grade their spiritual lives on a curve. On some level, they know they’re not perfect people. They lie, they get angry, they have impure thoughts, and so on.
However, then they start comparing themselves to their neighbors, and they conclude that they’re in pretty good shape after all. Sure, I’ve lied, but at least I didn’t get busted for selling drugs to a cop like them. Yeah, I’ve gotten mad and said ugly things, but I don’t get in fights at the bar Friday night like them. True, I’ve had impure thoughts before, but I didn’t run off with the waitress from Waffle House like they did. Clearly, in God’s eyes, we have earned A-range grades while those wicked worldlings have earned C-range grades, or worse!
There are several problems with this. First, all of us tend to regard our own sins with greater charity than we do the sins of others. There are plenty of people out there who think they are better than their neighbors even though God would not agree.
Second, and even more importantly, our neighbors’ actions reveal who our neighbors are, not who we are. The standard is not their bad behavior. It is the law of God. As Jesus reveals in Luke 17:7-10, God doesn’t consider service from His servants to be a bonus. Instead, His expectation is that we follow the law fully. Even if we manage that, which none of us do, it still wouldn’t be anything praiseworthy.
Once we stop grading ourselves on a spiritual curve, our true condition becomes obvious. I am not justified because (according to my own reckoning) I am better than my neighbors. Instead, because I have transgressed the divine commandment, I stand condemned. Rather than not needing help from anybody, I desperately need help from somebody!
This is a painful, humbling realization, but in exposing the lie of self-righteousness, it sets our feet on the path to true righteousness. We can’t trust in ourselves. It’s already too late for that. Even if we do everything right from now on, we’ve already blown it.
Instead, we must trust in Christ who justifies the ungodly. We can’t boast in ourselves because we’re sooo much better than people in the world. Instead, our boasting never can be in anyone but Him.
At some point in their lives, all Christians have to deal with the disappointment and frustration of God not answering their prayers on their timetable. They want something that is godly and good, they pray for it, and. . . nothing.
When we are wrestling with this problem, it’s useful to consider the story of the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11. All of us remember the triumphant conclusion, but it’s easy to overlook the less-than-triumphant beginning. In John 11:4, Jesus receives a message from Mary and Martha about Lazarus’ illness, but rather than leaving immediately for Bethany, v. 6 tells us that He stayed two days later where He was. As a result, when He arrives in Bethany in v.17, Lazarus already has been in the tomb for four days.
Unquestionably, Jesus could have acted immediately to heal Lazarus from a distance. Failing that, at least He could have left immediately, showing proper sympathy for Lazarus’ family. Instead, He kicks around for 48 hours, which results in great suffering for people He loves. When He does show up, Mary and Martha are not best pleased with Him.
However, a careful consideration of Jesus’ actions here reveals not laziness but rather pursuit of a greater goal. The resurrection of Lazarus is the miracle that finally pushes the leaders of the Jewish nation over the edge. John 11:45-53 reports that after it takes place, the chief priests and Sanhedrin become so afraid of Jesus’ popularity that they decide He has to die. If they don’t reach that conclusion, Jesus isn’t killed on the next Passover as the Lamb of God.
Thus, at that point in His ministry, Jesus is compelled to work a miracle that will force His enemies’ hand so that His death follows the divine timetable. Healing a live Lazarus wouldn’t have been remarkable enough to make them act. Jesus healed lots of people.
For that matter, raising a Lazarus only two days dead (as He could have done if He had left immediately) wouldn’t have done the trick either. The Jews would have been aware, as we are, of the Rule of Three. Generally, humans can survive for 30 days without food, three days without water, and three minutes without air.
Thus, if Lazarus had been in the tomb for only two days, the Jewish leaders plausibly could have argued that he wasn’t truly dead. Given that Lazarus was one of Jesus’ disciples, collusion was a reasonable possibility. In our own time, faith healers have tried similar stunts!
Raising Lazarus after four days in the tomb, though, made for an irrefutable miracle. After so long, the Jews wouldn’t merely have known that Lazarus was dead. Because the tomb was not hermetically sealed, they would have been able to smell that Lazarus was dead. When Martha objects to removing the stone in John 11:39 because of the stench it would raise, she has reason for so doing! Conversely, when Jesus restores life to the decomposing corpse, nobody can deny what just has happened.
Today, we cannot speculate on the reasons why God might delay or deny the answer we seek in our prayers. However, we must remember that from His perspective, things look very different than they do from ours.
Luke 14:15-23 is commonly known as “The Parable of the Banquet”, but it might equally well be called “The Parable of Excuses”. In the parable, a man gives a banquet and invites a number of people. However, the invitees all have excuses for why they will not come. In response, the host becomes angry, instructs his servants to find absolutely anybody to fill the places at the table, and vows that none of the original invitees will be allowed in.
In the context of Jesus’ ministry, this obviously is a parable about the Jews and the Gentiles. The Jews were the ones originally invited to the spiritual feast of fellowship with God, but for various reasons, they declined the invitation. Consequently, God invited the Gentiles into His kingdom in their place.
However, it’s also valuable for us to apply the parable to ourselves today in a more direct sense. It is sad but true that people will lose their souls because of the excuses they used to justify their disobedience.
These excuses begin with respect to obeying the gospel in the first place. Some say that they would be baptized for the forgiveness of their sins, except that their family always has held to a denominational tradition. Others say that they’re too wicked to become a Christian, so they need to get their lives straightened out first. Still others say that they are “not ready yet” for unspecified reasons. All of these excuses, though, allow the sinner to put off their salvation indefinitely, to their ultimate ruin.
The same applies to the justifications that Christians offer for prolonged disobedience to one of God’s commandments. Yes, they know that Christian husbands are commanded to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and that Christian wives are commanded to submit to their husbands as to the Lord.
However, they tell themselves that these commandments were written with a generic inoffensive spouse in mind, not with their particular obnoxious spouse. “I know what I’m supposed to do, but my wife is a shrew!” “I know what I’m supposed to do, but my husband is an idiot!” Thus, they feel free to return evil for evil rather than obeying the commandment. Their lives are marked by decade after decade of disobedience in a dysfunctional marriage.
Excuses also often emerge when a Christian fails to assemble regularly. Of course, there are legitimate reasons not to assemble—illness, work (though the Christian whose work schedule often keeps them from assembling is well advised to look for another job), or, these days, vulnerability to COVID-19. Other excuses (the preacher is boring, nobody there likes me, etc.) are less legitimate.
It is worth asking, though, whether the obstacles that keep us from assembling also keep us from worldly activities we enjoy. Work schedules can be frustrating, but one wonders about the man who never is able to assemble on Sunday morning but somehow manages to reserve his Saturday mornings for fishing trips. Likewise, if we avoid worship services because we’re afraid of the coronavirus, but we don’t seem to be afraid of vacationing in crowded tourist traps, perhaps it is time to examine our motivations more closely.
Whatever our excuses, we must acknowledge that we have far less reason to disobey than Jesus did. In heaven, He was equal with God. He was guiltless and did not deserve to die, and we were guilty and did not deserve to be saved. Nonetheless, rather than offering excuses, He offered Himself in obedience to His Father. As His disciples, is our call to do anything less?