The Work of the Word
Passage: Luke 13:10–13:21
The Word of the Word
One of the things the Elders have said to our church numerous times over the past year is that all we have to give you is the Word of God. I hope you recall us saying that, and I hope even more that you’ve thought through both what that means and why it matters. All we have to give is the Word of God.
What we mean, brothers and sisters, is that the Word of God, particularly as it reveals to us the gospel of Christ – that Word is the heartbeat of the Christian life. The Word is what drives us, giving us the direction and power to live for the glory of God. And the Word is what sustains us, affirming to us the things that are true about God, about ourselves, and about ourselves in relationship to God.
And why this matters is equally important. Without the Word of God, the church is left to flounder. It is through the Word that the Spirit’s ministry is made evident among us, and it is by the Word that God’s purpose of grace continues to be accomplished. As pastors, if we did not give you the Word of God in the gospel, we would be starving you, to use an abrasive image. All we have to give the church – indeed, all the church has to live on – is the Word of God, applied by the Spirit of God, conforming us all, by grace, to the Son of God.
And yet, as essential as this point is to the life of the church, there is a tension that we ought to acknowledge in our reflection. The tension is this – the power of God’s Word in the gospel is not always visibly evident. In the moment, it is hard to see where the Word is working. It is hard to trace the activity of the Word in the course of everyday life.
To use an example, I read the Scriptures this morning, just like I did the other mornings this week. And guess what? Nothing noticeably changed, at least not that I could see or measure or chart. And that’s what I mean by tension, brothers and sisters. All we have to give one another is the Word, and at the same time, the work – or we could say, the power – of that Word is not always easy to see, at least from our perspective.
And so, these questions begin to arise. How do we know this is where the power is found? Can we be sure that we’re not missing something essential? All we have to give one another is the gospel, as revealed in God’s Word, and yet, are we sure that this Word-Driven gospel-focus is doing anything?
And that brings us to Luke 13. On the surface, this passage has all the hallmarks of a typical scene in Jesus’ ministry. There is a miracle, and there are some parables. Those are not insignificant things, but we’ve seen them before. It would easy just to read over these verses, without much thought.
But that would miss the point of this passage. Yes, Jesus performs another miracle in these verses, but did you notice it’s the first miracle in a long time? There was a brief account in chapter 11, but the last detailed account of a miracle was in chapter 9. It’s been a while, and that’s the first indication of something significant. Along with that, the parables in this passage are also unique. These are parables about the kingdom of God. Both Matthew and Mark have these kinds of parables more frequently, but Luke only includes these.
So, when you put those things together, you begin to see what this passage is doing in Luke’s Gospel. This text is a snapshot of how Jesus’ word works as he proclaims the kingdom of God. And the point is to show us that regardless of the opposition, regardless of the appearances, and regardless of what we can measure or chart, Jesus’ word does come with power. Jesus’ word, as proclaimed in the gospel, is the expression of the kingdom’s unstoppable growth.
So, what we need to do this morning is track the progress of Jesus’ word in our text. We need to do this with the realization that the passage is certainly teaching us about Jesus’ ministry, but it’s also teaching us how to think about our own work to minister in Jesus’ name. To that end, we need to note three features of Jesus’ word in this short passage.
Now before we jump in, I want to add a point of clarification. When I talk about Jesus’ word in this passage, I mean more than simply the words that he speaks. Jesus’ word is the expression of his person, power, and authority. His word is the outworking of his sovereign position as the King over God’s Kingdom. So, by Jesus’ word, I don’t simply mean the words he speaks, though it certainly includes that. I mean the power that his word conveys, particularly as the gospel of the kingdom of God. So, with that in mind, let’s note three features of how Jesus’ word works in Luke 13.
Jesus’ Word Frees the Captive
The first feature focuses on the miracle in vv10-13: Jesus’ word frees the captive. In v10, we find Jesus teaching in a synagogue. This is not the first time we find Jesus in a synagogue, but it will be the last. At least here in Luke, this scene is something of a breaking point between Jesus and official Judaism. Now, it’s important to note that Jesus is not simply attending synagogue. He’s teaching. That is, Jesus is opening up the OT Scriptures, and he is expounding the truth of God’s Word. And that’s key for the passage. V10 presents Jesus in a position of authority. His word – his teaching – is the focus of this gathering.
But in v11, the entire tone of the scene changes. Luke introduces us to a woman whose life is marked by prolonged suffering. Notice again, v11 – “And behold, there was a woman who had had a disabling spirit for eighteen years. She was bent over and could not fully straighten herself.” There are a few things to note about this afflicted woman. First of all, her condition is protracted and severe. Clearly, there has been no one to help this woman because she’s spent eighteen years hunched over. If you’ve ever had back problems, perhaps your sympathy for this woman goes a little deeper than most. I had a mild back injury a few years ago, and for a short period of time, it was pretty disruptive to my quality of life. So, I can’t imagine eighteen years of not being to stand up straight. The physical difficulty would be monumental. Her condition is protracted and severe.
But the second thing we ought to note about this woman is that her condition has some spiritual component. Notice that Luke says her condition is due to a disabling spirit. And if you look down at v16, you’ll see that Jesus says Satan has bound this woman. So, there is some spiritual dimension to the woman’s condition. How does that work, we ask? Luke doesn’t tell us, so we shouldn’t speculate. It’s enough to say that the woman’s physical condition has a spiritual root. She’s afflicted with a disabling spirit.
And that helps us think about this miracle from a bigger perspective. The woman in v11 pictures life under the curse. She is crushed under the weight of spiritual oppression, and in her body, she endures the reality of a broken world. Do you see that bigger picture? It’s a living illustration of life under the curse of sin. Now, that’s not to say that the woman’s condition is caused by her sin. That’s not my point. And that’s not to spiritualize this scene as though it were something less than historical. It is certainly historical, just as every scene in the Gospels is historical. But that’s the powerful point, brothers and sisters. Here we have a glimpse, in real life, of what it is like to live under sin’s curse. It’s crushing. It’s debilitating. And it leaves one seemingly without hope.
But everything changes in v12, and it changes because Jesus speaks. Notice the Lord’s word, v12 – “When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said to her, ‘Woman, you are free from your disability.’” The first thing that should get your attention here is that Jesus initiates this encounter. The woman doesn’t come up to Jesus. Jesus summons her. Jesus calls her to himself. This is interesting. The verb called in v12 is the same verb used in chapter 6 when Jesus summoned his disciples. In fact, here and in chapter 6 are the only instances of Jesus using this verb to call people to himself. And that’s key. This is a word of authority, a word of summons. It is a call that not only invites, but also draws. In a way, then, Jesus’ call helps us understand that the focus of this miracle is actually not the woman, as sympathetic as she is in our perspective. The focus of this miracle is Jesus and what his word accomplishes.
And what Jesus’ word accomplishes is nothing less than freedom. For eighteen years, the woman has had no relief, but in an instant, Jesus’ word frees her from bondage. Jesus’ word, with power all of its own, dispels the disabling spirit, fixes whatever physical ailment existed, and restores the woman to wholeness. Jesus speaks, and freedom follows. Now, you might be thinking, “Yes, Jesus speaks, but then he has to help the woman stand up in v13.” That’s true, as you see there in v13. It is unusual for Jesus to use physical touch in his miracles. It only happens a handful of times in Luke, and it does so here.
The point is to demonstrate the effectiveness of Jesus’ word. First Jesus speaks, and then he helps raise her up. Do you see the progression? His word freed her from the disabling spirit, and then with compassion, Jesus proves the effectiveness of his word by lending the woman his hand. Indeed, the point of v13 is not the physical touch but the immediate healing. Immediately, Luke says, the woman is delivered. This is the power of Jesus’ word, brothers and sisters. It frees the captive.
And in response, the woman gives glory to God. You see it there at the end of v13. That might seem like a small thing, but it’s actually profound. The woman doesn’t glorify Jesus; she glorifies God. That’s not to say the woman ignores Jesus, far from it. Rather, the woman recognizes the truth in Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is the one who healed her, but she gives praise to God. Why? Because God is working in and through Jesus Christ.
Or, to say it another way, the woman’s praise tells the truth about Jesus. Here is the One who comes with God’s redemptive power. Here is the One who works with authority to crush the curse of sin. Here is the One who brings in the kingdom of God, a kingdom where darkness is dispelled and wholeness is restored. If the woman pictures life under the curse, then her healing pictures the coming of the kingdom of God.
And so, this point calls us to a very simple response – we ought to marvel at Jesus’ word – at his power and authority that overcomes brokenness in an instant. What no doctor or expert could do, Jesus does with his word. His word comes with power, his word comes with authority, and his word frees the captive.
Now, if we were writing this scene, we might think this is a good place to stop. The woman is delivered, God is glorified, so let’s go home. But that’s not how things work. Just as we need to understand the power of Jesus’ word, we need to also understand that not everyone responds like the woman. That’s our second feature in the progress of Jesus’ word, from vv14-17: Jesus’ word [also] encounters opposition.
Jesus’ Word Encounters Opposition
Luke describes the ruler of the synagogue in v14. He is responsible for the synagogue’s public worship, so this is a man of religious standing and reputation. But his response is entirely the opposite from the woman. Notice what he says, v14 – “But the ruler of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had healed on the Sabbath, said to the people, ‘There are six days in which work ought to be done. Come on those days and be healed, and not on the Sabbath.’” You could say this ruler is the Ebenezer Scrooge of Luke’s Gospel – cold-hearted, more concerned with status than with people, and ruthless in his insistence on official policy. In the ruler’s mind, Jesus has broken the Sabbath, which is not true as we’ll see in a moment. But still – the ruler is incensed, indignant Luke says. He’s so angry that he is blind to what God is doing. For all this religious standing, this ruler doesn’t have eyes to see.
And so, Jesus rebukes the ruler. Notice v15 – “Then the Lord answered him, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger and lead it away to water it? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, whom Satan bound for eighteen years, be loosed from this bond on the Sabbath day?” As before, when Jesus confronts the religious establishment, his point of contention is their hypocrisy. Same point here. The ruler has a hypocritical double standard. He treats his animals with compassion, even on the Sabbath, but he refuses to have compassion on this woman. And she’s a daughter of Abraham! She’s an heir of the promised blessing, a person made in the image of God. She has more value than your donkey, Jesus says. So, if you show compassion to your animals, why not to those who are heirs of the promise?
It’s an inescapable moment of conviction for the synagogue ruler. He’s been caught in his hypocritical use of God’s Word. The ruler thinks that honoring the Sabbath commandment means burdening people under the Law. But all that proves is that the ruler doesn’t understand the commandment. If he truly understood the Sabbath, he would be celebrating what Jesus has done.
In fact, we need to emphasize this point for a moment. Notice that Jesus uses the language of moral necessity in v16. He says the woman ought to be freed. The point is that Jesus’ action is not only permissible but also commendable. It is not only allowed; it is right and good and glorifies God. You could even go further. By freeing the woman, Jesus fulfills the very purpose of the Sabbath commandment. Why did the Sabbath exist? For the blessing of humanity and the glory of God. The Sabbath was meant to provide rest and refreshment from the burdens of life in the fallen world. The Sabbath promoted wholeness. So, by freeing the woman, Jesus actually fulfills the very purpose of the Sabbath commandment! The synagogue ruler is missing the point – not only of the miracle, but also of the Law and the Sabbath and the kingdom of God and even the Messiah.
The crowd, for its part, appears to understand the moment, at least in part. Notice v17 – “As he said these things, all his adversaries were put to shame, and all the people rejoiced at all the glorious things that were done by him.” I don’t think this means that everyone in the crowd responded to Jesus’ word, but it does indicate that the ruler’s hardheartedness was exposed. For this moment, it is clear that Jesus speaks with more authority and more truth than the religious establishment.
And that is perhaps a point of application for us, a place where we can build a bridge from Jesus’ context to our own. When you think about Jesus’ ministry, whom would you expect to receive his word? Someone like the synagogue ruler, right? A highly religious man – an official of Judaism – this is who we might expect to receive Jesus’ word.
But the opposite proves true. It is the religious official who responds so hard-heartedly. In context of Luke’s Gospel, this foreshadows what will happen to Jesus in Jerusalem, but there’s a principle here for us, brothers and sisters. We ought to expect opposition to Jesus’ word and, at times, from surprising sources. It was religious people who most vehemently opposed Jesus.
Why is that? It’s because the gospel of the kingdom threatens the religiously self-assured. Just like we see in this scene, the gospel of the kingdom – the biblical gospel – tells us that our only hope for deliverance is the mercy and power of Jesus Christ. We can’t free ourselves. We can’t keep enough Sabbaths or obey enough commandments. At the end of the day, only Jesus has the authority to save and deliver sinners like us.
And that message, brothers and sisters, offends the religiously self-assured. So, we need to learn this principle: we ought to expect opposition to Jesus’ word and, at times, from surprising sources. We’re seeing this in our own day. Perhaps the most vehement opposition to the biblical gospel comes from those who profess to be very religious. It is self-professed religious people who are leading the charge in suggesting that God’s punishment of sin is not eternal. It is so-called religious organizations that are helping push the view that God’s Word does not require adherence to biblical views of sexuality. It is even some religious leaders who are now suggesting that certain kinds of sin require more restitution that what is found in the gospel’s call to repent and believe. Each of those examples represents opposition to Jesus’ word, and each of those examples comes from places we might not expect. And so, the principle of these verses proves true: we ought to expect opposition to Jesus’ word and, at times, from surprising sources.
Now, that sounds like a troubling situation to be in, doesn’t it? Our first two points appear to be at odds: Jesus’ word has power, but it also faces opposition. Where, then, is our confidence that Jesus’ word is working as it should? Or, to use the question from our introduction – How do we know that banking our lives and ministry on Jesus’ word is the wise way to live? Consider the third feature of the passage, from vv18-21: Jesus’ word will triumph in unexpected ways.
Jesus’ Word Will Triumph in Unexpected Ways
Before we look at the parables, I want us to note the word therefore in v18 – “Jesus said therefore,” and then come the parables. That word therefore tells us we ought to read these two passages together. These parables teach us how to understand the power of Jesus’ word in a context of opposition. So, let’s look briefly at the two parables, both of which make a simple point.
First off, the parable of the mustard seed, v19 – “[The kingdom of God] is like a grain of mustard see that a man took and sowed in his garden, and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches.” The mustard seed was the smallest known seed in Jesus’ day. But in the parable, that small beginning eventually brings monumental growth. The seed produces a plant so large, the birds can nest in its branches. The point is this: we must not judge the kingdom of God based on its appearance at the beginning. Just because Jesus’ ministry appears small now does not mean the Word of God has failed. Just because there is opposition in the present does not mean the outcome is in doubt. Like the mustard seed, the gospel of the kingdom will bear fruit so large that people from every tribe, tongue, and nation will be brought in. In fact, in the OT, the prophets Ezekiel and Daniel use the image of birds nesting in branches to symbolize the nations coming under the rule of King David’s Heir. Again, that’s the point: don’t judge Jesus’ ministry based on its small beginning.
The second parable is about leaven, and it makes a similar point. Notice v21 – “[The kingdom of God] is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, until it was all leavened.” My wife has been baking lots of bread lately, and it’s amazing to me how a little pack of yeast or leaven can change an entire batch of dough. Just a pinch really, and stodgy lumps of flour become light, delicious loaves of bread.
And so it is with the kingdom of God, Jesus says. At the moment, God’s kingdom appears like a small measure of leaven in comparison to all the rival kingdoms of this world. But in the end, the kingdom of God will triumph. Through the gospel, the kingdom of God, like leaven, will spread throughout the entire world, until the knowledge of the glory of God covers the earth like the waters cover the sea. Like leaven, the kingdom will undoubtedly spread.
Now, put the parables together. At this point, Jesus’ ministry appears small. Even the religious establishment despises him. But there is an incredible transformation coming. The power of the gospel is so great that it will spread through all the world until salvation comes to every tribe, tongue, and nation. The key response, then, is to not judge the work of the gospel by what you can see in the moment. Don’t judge the power of Jesus’ word based on what you can measure and chart. Remember that in God’s kingdom, we walk by faith, not by sight. Don’t judge the power of Jesus’ word based on what you can see right now.
And that includes the progress of the gospel in our lives, brothers and sisters. That includes the work of God’s word in our church. It is so easy to look at the mustard seed of our church and conclude, “There’s nothing happening here.” It is so easy to look at the tiny measure of the gospel’s influence in our culture and think, “This Word-driven Christianity isn’t doing anything. We need a refresh.” It is so easy to finish up another day of walking by faith and living according to Scripture and think, “This is pointless. Building my life on the Bible isn’t doing anything.” I know it easy to think those things because I often think them myself.
But brothers and sisters, that’s where we need to remember the progress of Jesus’ word in this passage. That’s where we need to reflect on these parables of the kingdom. God’s kingdom does not work the way we expect. It does not operate according to the world’s standards. Jesus’ word will triumph. His word will accomplish his purpose, but it will do so through the slow, often unnoticed, growth of the mustard seed. It happens through the quiet, sometimes imperceptible, effect of the leaven. So, don’t lose heart, Jesus is saying. Don’t conclude that opposition means failure. Don’t assume that slow is bad. Don’t think that incremental growth is somehow less than ideal. It’s not. That’s how the kingdom grows. That’s how the word does its work – not with a flash and a bang, but with the imperceptible yet unstoppable growth of God’s word in the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Many Christians want to be kingdom-minded these days, and there are numerous mission statements out there about advancing the kingdom and what not. But the reality, brothers and sisters, is that being kingdom-minded means devoting your life to the slow, steady work of God’s word in and through the gospel.
Lately, I have found myself praying from the Lord’s Prayer far more than ever before. It’s really the only thing I have been praying as of late for myself and for our church: Father, your kingdom come, your will be done – not my will, not my timing, but your will and in your time. Would you pray it with me – for our lives as Christians, and for our church? Your will be done, through your Word.
Don’t lose heart, brothers and sisters. Keep banking your life on the Scriptures. Keep gathering for worship under God’s Word. Keep trusting the gospel to do its work – in God’s time, not ours. I know it seems small now, but it’s like a mustard seed. One day, the fruit will be far more than you can ask or imagine. Amen.