Summer 2003

Religion and Spirituality

The Gospels for the 21st Century, Part 14

The Difficult Way

David Hulme

Jesus explained that living the way of life He taught was filled with obstacles. He warned those who followed Him that no mater how hard the course, the only option was to finish the journey.

Do you assume that when tragedy befalls a person, he or she must have sinned in some extraordinary way?

Jesus addressed this idea when some said they’d witnessed the brutal death of some of their fellow countrymen. Apparently the Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, had killed certain Galileans while they were sacrificing at the temple. He had then mixed their blood with that of their offerings—an act of great desecration. Jesus asked the crowd whether they thought these poor victims had suffered so because they were guilty of worse sins than other people.

While His answer was no, they were not worse sinners, He took the opportunity to point out that all sin must be repented of. If we do not repent and change our ways, He said, we will all perish, whether by the hand of a military ruler or otherwise.

Jesus added to His argument by asking about another specific case of tragedy with which His audience was familiar. He said, “Those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem?” (Luke 13:4). The answer was again no. But the point He made was that all of us will die forever if we do not repent of our sins.

Emphasizing that sometimes God allows a certain period for repentance, Jesus told a parable (verses 6–9) about a fig tree that did not bear fruit over a three-year period—understood to be a reference to the length of His ministry to that point and to His rejection by His own people. He said that at the end of three years the owner of the fig tree ordered that the tree be cut down. His laborer asked for a little more time for the tree; if after fertilizing it did not bear fruit in the next year, it should be destroyed. This is thought to refer to the possibility of fruit being borne from Jesus’ work among His own people within the last few months of His life. That would have been in the fourth year of His ministry. Certainly the principle is that, while time is given for repentance, God’s mercy does not extend forever. The time comes when He says enough is enough.

Untying Humanity 

One of the issues that had arisen during Jesus’ ministry was that of correct Sabbath observance. Jesus had made it clear that He was willing to do good deeds on the Sabbath. And He said the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. When He healed a woman who had been crippled for 18 years, the ruler of the local synagogue rebuked the people for asking for healing on the Sabbath. He said, “There are six days for work. So come and be healed on those days, and not on the Sabbath” (verse 14).

Jesus’ response was to show the hypocrisy of such a statement. He said that His critics would willingly untie an ox or a donkey on the Sabbath and lead it out to water; why, then, should he not “untie” a woman with an affliction? This was a humiliating example for the synagogue ruler, but the people were pleased with Jesus’ reply.

Jesus went on to explain in a couple of examples the nature of the kingdom of God. He said it’s like a mustard seed, one of the smallest of seeds, capable of growing to a substantial size. It’s also like yeast, which spreads throughout a lump of dough (verses 18–21). In other words, the kingdom of God, which is yet to come in its fullness on the earth, will grow from a small beginning now in the lives of the few into global dominance. It will spread throughout the earth.

There is a time yet ahead when all of humanity will at last live under ideal conditions. 

That’s the future of this war-weary world. There is a time yet ahead when all of humanity will at last live under ideal conditions. That is the message of the kingdom of God that Jesus Christ brought. As we hear each day’s news headlines, we see the desperate plight of the world’s peoples, and we know the answer must come from beyond us. That’s what the Bible teaches. God will intervene to save us from ourselves.

Jesus’ Real Identity 

During the next winter Jesus went to the temple at the time of the Feast of Dedication, known today as the Festival of Lights, or Hanukkah. Though not a biblically commanded celebration, it commemorates the deliverance of the Jewish people in 164 B.C. from the bloody conqueror Antiochus Epiphanes, king of Syria. The Gospel of John provides the only mention of the festival in the Bible.

As Jesus walked in the outer colonnaded area of the temple, a number of Jerusalemites gathered around Him and asked about His identity. They said, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly” (John 10:24).

Jesus reminded them that He had told them before, but they had not believed Him. He said that His works proved who He was and that His followers heard in Him the voice of the Shepherd. God had given those followers the ability to recognize His Son, and they could not be snatched away from their relationship with the Father. Jesus also made a third statement regarding His identity, saying that He and the Father had a unity of spirit and approach. He explained, “I and the Father are one” (verse 30).

This was a red rag to His Jewish listeners. They claimed falsely that He had committed blasphemy by equating Himself with God the Father. As a result, they picked up stones and were ready to kill Him.

Jesus’ response was to quote part of a psalm to them in which the Hebrew word for “gods,” elohim, is used. He said, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are gods’?” (verse 34). In Hebrew elohim can also mean “judges.” In a play on words, Jesus was saying that if God could apply that word to humans, meaning “judges,” how much more could He apply it to His own Son, who is part of the God family, and mean “god”? Once again Jesus was telling them who He really was.

Further, He said that they should not believe Him if He did not do the works of the Father. But if they could recognize that such works were being done, then they should accept them as physical proof of what God was doing through Him.

This argument made very little impression, except to convince them to try to take Him into custody. But Jesus eluded them and went on His way across the Jordan to the area known as Perea, where John the Baptist had first baptized people.

What John had taught about Jesus now had its effect. The people in Perea commented, “All that John said about this man was true” (verse 41). As a result, many people believed in Jesus.

Two Ways of Living 

Making a tour of various towns and villages, Jesus traveled slowly back in the direction of Jerusalem. On the way someone asked whether only a few people are going to be saved. Jesus’ answer cut to the heart of the problem with human nature. He said that we should “make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many . . . will try to enter and will not be able to” (Luke 13:24).

At the time of the judgment there will be those who will claim that they have worked in Jesus Christ’s name, and He will tell them that He does not recognize them. They will argue, “[but] we ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.” He will say to them, “I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!” (verses 26–27).

It was a powerful warning to any who would be complacent about their familiarity with Jesus, then and now. It’s not a matter of knowledge but of doing what He says. Head knowledge is of little consequence if it is not practiced.

Jesus completed His answer with a startling image for the self-satisfied. He said, “There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last” (verses 28–30).

It is not our claim to be following God but our actual practice of “the narrow way” that matters. 

We all need to guard against the temptation to sit back and assume that we will be on the right side at that time. It is not our claim to be following God but our actual practice of “the narrow way” that matters.

Now some of the Pharisees approached Jesus and advised Him to leave Perea because, they said, “Herod wants to kill you.” Perea was in the territory of Herod Antipas.

Jesus replied with as strong a reply about a political leader as you will find in the Gospels. He said, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.’ Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow, and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem” (verses 32–33, New King James Version).

Jesus recognized the cunning of Herod, who had after all been responsible for the imprisonment and death of John the Baptist. He also knew that His own ministry was coming to an end. When He spoke of healing today and tomorrow, and the third day being perfected, He meant that He would reach His goal in a short time. There was still work to do, but it was almost over. And it was in Jerusalem, not Perea, that He would finally be rejected.

Jesus concluded with a heartfelt expression of concern for the city of Jerusalem and all that had happened to those who had come there on God’s authority. He said, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing! Look, your house is left to you desolate. I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’” (verses 34–35).

In part it was a prophetic statement of the desolation that would come at the hands of the Roman military in A.D. 70. The destruction of the city would result from the rejection of Jesus as the One who could have prevented such a tragedy. It was also no doubt a reference to the many years since then, in which Jesus has not been a part of the life of the majority of His own ethnic group. After His death, He said, the people of Jerusalem would not see Him again until the day of His return to the earth.

Three Parables 

Later, on a Sabbath day, Jesus was at a meal with a prominent Pharisee. The usual careful watch was being kept to see whether the young rabbi would somehow break one of the strict rules of the religious group.

In front of Jesus was a man with a medical condition. Perceiving the hypocrisy of His hosts, Jesus asked the Pharisees and the legal experts present whether it was lawful to heal on the Sabbath.

Interestingly, none of the experts answered Him. So He went ahead and healed the man. He then asked whether they would pull their own ox out of a well on the Sabbath. Obviously they would, but again they said nothing.

Noting that He was in the presence of people who were filled with pride of position and status, He took the opportunity to teach some lessons in humility, impartiality and dedication. He did this by relating three parables.

For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

Luke 14:11

Humility is hard to find in today’s world. The world of the scribes and Pharisees was really no different. They enjoyed the social prominence that their status gave them. But Jesus said that when they were invited to a wedding feast they should take the lowest or least distinguished seat at the table. That way their host could always elevate them if he wished. Otherwise, if they had taken the seat of honor without being invited, they risked the humiliation of being asked to take a lower seat. He concluded, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:11).

Turning to His host, Jesus said, “When you give a luncheon or dinner, do not invite your friends, your brothers or relatives, or your rich neighbors; if you do, they may invite you back and so you will be repaid.” The need to practice impartiality was Jesus’ point. He went on, “But when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind, and you will be blessed. Although they cannot repay you, you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous” (verses 12–14).

Some at the table with Him commented on the blessing it will be to attend such a meal in the kingdom of God. In reply, Jesus told a pointed story about a man who prepared a great feast for many people (verses 16–24). The guests were told that the meal was ready, and they began to make all kinds of excuses for not being able to come. One said that he had just purchased some land and needed to see it. Another said that he had bought some oxen and needed to try them out. A third said he was just married and couldn’t make it.

The servant of the man who was giving the banquet returned and told his master, who became angry and ordered his servant to open the banquet to the disadvantaged and anyone else who could come. But the servant was to keep out those originally invited. Their ingratitude had prevented them from sharing the feast.

The lesson was obvious. The religious leaders, who did not recognize Jesus for who He was, would be shut out of the kingdom of God.

These three parables reinforce three important principles in life. We need an abundance of humility, we need to be fair toward all people, and we must not reject the offer of a place in the kingdom of God by making excuses after we are invited to participate.

Counting the Cost 

Jesus’ travels in Perea were almost at an end. Soon He would have to go to Jerusalem and face death. In this context He told the large crowd traveling with Him that the cost of discipleship was high. He said that anyone who was not prepared to carry his own cross and follow Him was not worthy of being a disciple.

He advised that people should count the cost before committing to a course of action. Builders should not build buildings without cost estimates and the financial backing to complete the work. Similarly, leaders do not go to war unless they believe they can win and are committed to doing so (verses 28–33). A willingness to give all may be necessary to achieve the goal at hand. As Jesus pointed out, followers must not be bland people, like salt that has lost its flavor (verses 34–35). There must be inner strength. No one will achieve much in the Christian life without wholehearted commitment.