Glory, Unbelief, and Humility: Lessons on the Road of Discipleship
Passage: Luke 9:37–9:50
Glory, Unbelief, and Humility: Lessons on the Road of Discipleship
Jesus knew what it was like to experience the peaks and valleys of life in this fallen world. He knew what it was like to go from a high point back down to the demands of everyday life. Our passage this morning is quite literally a picture of that experience. Here in Luke 9, Jesus goes from the mountaintop glory of the Transfiguration back down to the reality of ministry in the world. And it happens so quickly, doesn’t it? One day, Jesus is on the mountain shining with the glory of God, v36, and the next day, v37, he descends to be swarmed by the needy crowd. That’s quite the change. From mountaintop glory down to everyday life, Jesus experienced it all.
And that transition gets at the heart of what this passage is about. Perhaps you wondered this as we read. What do these four scenes have to do with one another? There is a miracle, vv37-43; a prediction of suffering, vv43-45; an squabble about greatness, vv46-48; and then a moment of rivalry, vv49-50. What do those scenes have to do with one another? Or, to ask it another way – Why does Jesus’ Galilean Ministry conclude in the valley of everyday life, rather than on the mountaintop of glory? What is Luke getting at here?
The connection has to do with failure. Not failure on Jesus’ part, but failure on the part of his disciples. Do you see that thread running through the text? In each of the four scenes, the disciples fail. They cannot heal the boy. They cannot understand Jesus’ suffering. They cannot stop arguing about greatness. And they cannot fathom anybody encroaching on their turf. One scene after another, the disciples fail.
And that’s really the takeaway of this passage, brothers and sisters. As Jesus gets ready to head for Jerusalem, his disciples still have so much to learn. They have not reached the mountaintop of discipleship, in other words. They’re still down in the valley of everyday life, with lots to learning still to come.
But remarkably, Jesus joins his disciples down in that valley. This is the reality of grace that is often overlooked in this text. Jesus does not leave the disciples to themselves. He doesn’t leave them in their failure. Instead, Jesus patiently instructs them that discipleship is not about elevating yourself in glory. It’s not about you getting to the mountaintop. No, discipleship, according to Jesus, is about dying to your self in humility before God, so that you might serve others for the sake of Christ. From the mountain to the valley, Jesus continues to patiently teach his disciples what they need.
Alan Thompson, in his very fine commentary on Luke’s Gospel, says this passage shows us what disciples need in order to follow Jesus and minister in his name. I like that perspective, so that’s where we’ll focus our time. What do Jesus’ disciples need? This passage gives three answers, and each one shows how humility is vital for discipleship. Let’s follow Jesus back down to the valley of ministry, and let’s learn from the Lord what disciples need.
Disciples Need the Humility to Depend on Jesus’ Power
First of all, in vv37-43, we see that Disciples Need the Humility to Depend on Jesus’ Power. As Jesus is swarmed by the crowd, v37, he’s met by a desperate father. This man is in anguish, v38, and v39 tells us why. His son is severely afflicted by an evil spirit. The effects he describes sound like a form of epilepsy, but Luke sees a spiritual cause at the root. An unclean spirit is attacking this man’s son. It’s horrific to even picture in your mind, isn’t it – thrown to the ground, foaming at the mouth, shaking violently. It’s so bad, the father fears that his son will be torn apart.
But the main trouble comes in v40. This is the last we hear from the boy’s father, and notice how it puts the disciples in the spotlight, v40 – “And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Now, in the flow of Luke ch9, this failure is somewhat surprising. Remember how the chapter started – with Jesus sending out the Twelve and giving them power over demons and disease. Do you remember that? And the disciples were successful, weren’t they? Ch9, v10 – they returned to Jesus and told him all they done. But now, it’s different. They’ve failed. The disciples cannot help this man’s son.
What has changed? What is going on here? Notice Jesus’ response, v41, and listen how his rebuke provides some insight, both for us and for the disciples. V41 – “Jesus answered, ‘O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you. Bring your son here.’” That is a pretty strong rebuke, and it includes Jesus’ disciples. Now, let’s be clear. Jesus is not saying the disciples are hopelessly opposed to God. That’s not the point. Rather, Jesus is saying that at this moment, the disciples have failed to exercise faith. They’ve failed to depend on God and walk in submission to his ways. Instead of trusting God’s provision, the disciples apparently tried to rely on their own resources. In fact, this same scene in Mark’s Gospel strongly implies that the disciples tried to cast out this spirit without even praying.
It’s not hard to envision what happened. The disciples had tasted some “success” in ministry – they had cast out demons and healed people before – and so, they concluded that they had mastered this whole ministry thing. They approached this situation with an attitude of self-sufficiency, rather than an attitude of dependence. “Oh, we got this. We’ve seen this before. Bring us your son. We’ll handle it.” But then they can’t handle it. They don’t have the resources in themselves, and that’s why they fail.
Mercifully, however, the disciples’ failure is not the end of the scene. Jesus calls for the boy, and he’s more than able to help, v42 – “While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.” That detail at the start of the verse about the spirit’s attack is significant. Jesus faces the demon in full strength. It’s ravaging the boy. And yet, Jesus triumphs with a word. It’s not even hard. With one little word, Jesus fells this minion of Satan, and then with compassion, Jesus hands the boy back to his father.
Don’t you love Jesus’ combination of unrivaled power and unsurpassed tenderness? He crushes demons, and he carries sons and daughters back to the Father. There’s no one like the Lord Jesus Christ, and that’s the point here. You hear it even in the crowd’s testimony, v43 – “And all were astonished at the majesty of God.” This is God’s power at work through Jesus, and that means there is no one like him.
And so, this entire episode with the unclean spirit forms a contrast that teaches a discipleship lesson. What overmatched the disciples is no match for Jesus. What’s most needed for ministry is not your capability, but Jesus’ power and provision. It’s a common pitfall that every Christian faces. It’s the pitfall of forgetting that whatever “success” we experience, it wasn’t our resources that made it happen. Whatever mountaintop we attain, it wasn’t our strength that brought us there. We walk by faith, not by sight, remember? And perhaps one of the greatest enemies of faith is the mistaken notion that our past track record proves we have enough for today’s need.
But that’s just it, brothers and sisters. Our past track record is never a testimony to what we’re able to do. It’s always a testimony of what Christ can do, in us and through us. Disciples, in other words, never outgrow dependence. We never move on from needing what only Jesus can provide. Mark it down. Christian maturity is not measured by the world’s standards. In the world, you mature by growing more independent, more self-sufficient. But the kingdom of God is upside-down, isn’t it? In God’s kingdom, maturity is defined by dependence on what only Jesus can give.
Of course, the question becomes, “Then how do I depend on Jesus and on his power?” Brothers and sisters, it’s nothing more than depending upon his Word and committing yourself to the community his Word creates. Remember, the power of Christ is manifested in our day through the Scriptures. As the Word of God goes out in our lives, the Lord Jesus works by his Holy Spirit to transform us, to conform us to his image, and to shape us for life and service in his church.
Bank your life on the Word of God, brothers and sisters. That’s how you depend on Jesus’ power. Read God’s Word, believe it, meditate upon it, and then commit yourself to the community God’s Word creates. I know that sounds simple, perhaps even too small to make a difference, but it’s precisely the kind of humble dependence that we so often miss in discipleship.
Disciples Need the Humility to Understand Jesus’ Suffering
That’s the first answer to our question – What do disciples need? They need the humility to depend on Jesus. The second answer comes in vv43-45 – Disciples Need the Humility to Understand Jesus’ Suffering. The crowd, you see in v43, is busy marveling at the majesty of God, but Jesus very quickly turns his focus to his disciples. He wants them to understand that his majesty does not exempt him from suffering. Notice v44, where Jesus says to his disciples – “Let these words sink into your ears: the Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” This is the second time Jesus has predicted his death. The first was back in v22, and the focus was the cross and resurrection. Here in v44, the focus is on Jesus’ betrayal that will lead to his death. Already, Jesus knows that he will be delivered into the hands of wicked men. Already, Jesus knows that Judas will betray him.
And yet, Jesus is not afraid. He doesn’t run from what is to come. Why is that? Why can Jesus acknowledge the suffering that awaits him in Jerusalem and still willingly go there? The answer, as in v22, has to do with divine sovereignty. It’s true that Judas will betray Jesus – Judas will deliver him into the hands of the religious leaders. But at the same time, Judas will do so in accord with God’s sovereign will. That’s the surprising depth of v44. Look again at the verse, and notice how Jesus says that he will be delivered up. Do you see that? Someone else is doing the delivering. Who is that someone? Is it Judas, or is it God the Father? Yes, the Bible says. God’s will is for the Christ to suffer many things, and Judas will choose to betray Jesus in fulfillment of that will.
This is the consistent biblical teaching when it comes to divine sovereignty and human responsibility. People sometimes ask, “Is God sovereign, or are people responsible?” – as though the two ideas are incompatible. But over and over, Scripture presents a different view. According to the Bible, divine sovereignty and human responsibility are entirely compatible with one another. God absolutely ordains all that comes to pass – from the movement of molecules to the betrayal of his Son – and yet, God ordains these things in such a way that he is absolutely not the author of evil or the cause of sin. Rather, human beings are responsible for their actions. In the mystery of divine sovereignty, our actions serve the purpose of God. What Judas means for evil, God uses for good. That’s what v44 is teaching. Jesus knows what’s coming – he knows Judas will betray him – and Jesus knows this because it will occur in lockstep with the sovereign will of God the Father.
But while Jesus knows this, the disciples do not yet understand. Notice v45 – “But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about the saying.” The disciples do not understand the cross and what it means for Jesus. And Luke says this very fascinating thing here – that the saying was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. Now, who or what is concealing this from the disciples?
One option is that God, in his sovereignty, conceals the truth from the disciples at this point. In his wisdom, God determines to wait until after the resurrection to give the disciples clearer insight. And in fact, that is what the book of Acts teaches – that it wasn’t until the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that the disciples fully understood what the cross and resurrection meant for Jesus. There is again this note of sovereignty in the passage.
Another option is that the disciples’ own unbelief has concealed the truth from them. We just heard Jesus rebuke their faithlessness, so we know that some unbelief is present. And as the Gospel narrative moves on, this what we see in the disciples. They cannot fathom how the Christ will suffer. The idea of the cross doesn’t fit their expectations, and so, they do not understand. Their unbelief, you might say, distorts how they see Jesus.
Which one is it? I would say the answer is what we just considered from v44. This too is another instance where Scripture puts sovereignty and responsibility together. God, in his wisdom, will reveal things more fully after the resurrection, at the Day of Pentecost. And, at the same time, the disciples’ own unbelief keeps them from understanding. In their minds, Jesus should conform to their expectations, and when he doesn’t, they simply can’t see where things are going. That’s why they’re fearful to ask any further, I’d suggest. They don’t want to own up to what they can’t see.
Brothers and Sisters, one of the things we ought to learn here is that humility – a willingness to submit our understanding to God – humility is vital for following Jesus. As long as I demand that Jesus fit my expectations, I’ll fail to understand. It’s really the first step of discipleship, isn’t it? The humility to confess, “I don’t know the truth on my own, and I can’t figure it out. I need you, God, to open my eyes, to reveal where I’m wrong, and to save my soul.”
If you’re not a Christian this morning, this is where God’s Word tells you to begin – not with the demand that Jesus conform to you, and not with the idea that you can figure things out on your own. No, Scripture begins with the demand that you humble yourself before the Lord – that you ask God to reveal the truth. And the truth about Jesus is this – he is the Son of God, he laid down his life at the cross in obedience to the Father, he shed his blood to cleanse his people from sin, he rose from the dead on third day, and he is coming back very soon to judge the living and the dead. That’s the gospel truth about Jesus Christ. It’s what Jesus predicts about himself in v44. And Scripture says to be a Christian, you must submit yourself to that truth, even when the truth challenges every expectation you have.
I can’t convince you of this truth. Just like v45 implies – God has to open your eyes. I pray this morning that he would do just that – that God, through his Holy Spirit, would give each of us the humility to submit ourselves to his Word and to believe that Jesus suffered to save sinners like us.
Disciples Need the Humility to Embrace Jesus’ Correction
Disciples need humility to depend on Jesus’ power, and humility to understand Jesus’ suffering. There’s one more answer to what disciples need, and it closes the passage in vv46-50. To follow the Lord, Disciples Need the Humility to Embrace Jesus’ Correction. Now, the flow of the passage is instructive here. What have we witnessed from the disciples so far? Inability, v40, and lack of understanding, v45. That’s a rough stretch of verses, you might say. What do the disciples do next? Naturally, they argue about who is the greatest. V46 – they compare themselves to one another. Who has the most power? Who’s the most significant? When the kingdom comes, who will sit closest to Jesus?
It’s a sad moment of rivalry, but even more sadly, it’s a moment we can relate to, isn’t it? It is so easy to play that comparison game, even in the church, and we love those comparisons that put us in the best light, don’t we? I remember seeing a seminary classmate of mine installed at a pretty large church, and to my shame, my first thought was not, “Praise God, I pray his ministry flourishes.” No, my first thought was, “Stink, he’s got a more important post than me now. I got to catch up.” It’s the comparison game. It’s what the disciples do in v46, and sadly, it is something we can all relate to because we all share in the same human nature.
But amazingly, the Lord Jesus is patient with arrogant disciples like us. Notice Jesus’ correction in vv47-48 – “But Jesus, knowing the reasoning of their hearts, took a child and put him by his side, and said to them, ‘Whoever receives this child in my name receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me. For he who is least among you all is the one who is great.’” What Jesus does here is redefine the idea of greatness. Remember, the kingdom of God is upside-down compared to our expectations, and that is true with greatness. The world says to be great, you’ve got to know great people and join them in doing really significant things.
But that’s not the case in God’s kingdom, Jesus says. Jesus defines greatness as the willingness to serve, even in ways the world says are insignificant. In Jesus’ day, spending time with children was pretty much considered a waste of a teacher’s ability. It wasn’t until after age 12 that teachers would even agree to take on students. When Jesus talks about receiving a child, his point is that greatness means doing the low thing, doing what the world considers insignificant, perhaps even a waste of time. It means rejecting the idea that you should only pursue opportunities that advance your standing.
Life in God’s kingdom is not about climbing the spiritual ladder. It’s not about networking and resume-building. In God’s kingdom, greatness means looking for ways to go lower, embracing opportunities that don’t appear strategic, opportunities that no one would see. In God’s kingdom, it’s the least – those outside the limelight – who are the greatest. To embrace the lowly is to embrace Christ himself, and through Christ, to embrace the Father. And That’s true greatness – to know Jesus and, through him, to know the Father and then to make the Father known.
But the disciples have a long way to go, and the passage ends with John illustrating this reality. John goes from the comparison game to the competition mindset. Notice v49, where there is an unnamed exorcist who clearly works with Jesus’ power, but since he isn’t part of the disciples’ group, John and the others try to stop him. It’s just competition run amok, isn’t it? If you’re not with us, John thinks, then you competing against us.
But again, Jesus displays incredible patience and brings the correction. Notice v50 – “But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him, for the one who is not against you is for you.’” That’s basically a call to reject the competition mindset when it comes to serving Jesus. Even if someone is not in your group, if he is serving in Jesus’ name and for Jesus’ sake, you should be thankful. It’s like the apostle Paul in Philippians 1, when he knew that some were preaching the gospel in an attempt to get ahead while Paul was stuck in prison. Do you remember Paul’s response? It wasn’t competition. He didn’t send Timothy to shut those preachers down. No, Paul said, “In every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed, and in that I rejoice.” Paul had been schooled in the wisdom of God’s kingdom. It’s not the wisdom of the world that says you have to protect your market share no matter what. No, it’s the wisdom that rejects both comparison and competition, and chooses instead to embrace the humility of serving Jesus where he has you and in the way he’s called you.
Brothers and Sisters, this is what I want us to close with today. Go back to v48 where Jesus talks about the humility to serve in insignificant ways. All over our culture, you and I are being fed the message that you should use your life to make a significant difference, that you need to use your voice and your platform to change the world. But if you listen closely to that kind of talk, you’ll find this thread of self-promotion and self- advancement lurking not very far beneath the surface. And look, it has infected the church as well. We love to promote Christians who are doing big, significant things, and we tend to equate “the ministry” with public functions.
But Christ’s kingdom calls us to something different. The Lord Jesus calls us to serve in ways the world would call unimportant. The Lord calls us to use our gifts in places the world would say are not the most strategic. And yet, that’s where greatness is found. That’s where the difference is made. And my prayer, brothers and sisters, is that we would be a truly kingdom-minded church, where we delight to give ourselves to serve in ways that people may never see and in places that will never get noticed.
What do I mean? The examples are too numerous to exhaust, but here are a few to prime your thinking:
It’s the priority of the home – both as a place of hospitality, and especially as a place of discipleship and nurture for children, even to the point of giving them your best effort, your best thinking, your best gifts. The world calls that kind of home-cultivation small, perhaps even a waste of time, but Jesus looks at people giving their lives to the care of others and the cultivation of future generations, and Jesus says, “Greatness.”
It’s the priority of regular, everyday discipleship – specifically the slow, steady work of helping a person grow in Christ, and doing so without anyone noticing. The world says make it bigger, expand the horizons, speed it up. But Jesus looks at that slow, steady relationship and, Jesus says, “Greatness.”
It’s the priority of quiet, no-frills gospel boldness in the small places of life – specifically knowing your neighbors and co-workers, and simply sowing the seeds of friendship and gospel truth, speaking of Christ and praying for faith. The world says just focus on your own career and get ahead, but Jesus sees that quiet gospel work and says, “Greatness.”
It’s the priority of what I call eyes-wide-open ministry – that is, I look out instead of in, and when I see a need that I can meet, I meet it, even if it doesn’t fit my preferences or add to my sense of fulfillment. The world says just let someone else do that, it doesn’t really matter and it certainly doesn’t add anything to you. But Jesus sees those servant-hearted people, and Jesus says, “Greatness.”
We’ve all been shaped by the world’s definition of greatness far more than we’d like to admit. At the end of the day, if we were there in Luke 9, we’d have been arguing right along with the disciples because that’s where human nature takes us – into the muck of comparison and competition. But amazingly, Jesus is patient with failing disciples like us. He’s patient to correct us, and he does so by pointing us to himself.
Don’t miss that point. At the end of the day, who is the One that has gone the lowest and served the least of these? It’s the Lord Jesus himself. His cross is the ultimate demonstration of kingdom greatness, and by focusing our lives on his cross, we too can find the strength to embrace his correction, follow in his steps, and pursue greatness according to his definition. Let’s be that kind of church, brothers and sisters, to the glory of God. Amen.
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