Seeking God's Kingdom on God's Terms
Passage: Luke 14:1–14:14
Seeking God's Kingdom on God's Terms
It is common nowadays to say that we live in a secular age, and in many ways, that statement is true. Commitment to organized religion is at an all-time low, at least in our country, and people are increasingly resistant to any sort of revealed truth that demands their allegiance. In that sense, it is true to say we are living in a secular age. The hallmarks are all around us.
But at the same time, our secular age also evidences growing interest in spirituality. For example, did you know that 28% of Americans stated their goal in 2020 was to focus on their personal spiritual growth? That’s a fascinating goal for an admittedly secular world, and it demonstrates the point. While secularity is on the rise, so too is interest in spirituality. In fact, this combination has given rise to a new label – secular spirituality. That probably sounds strange to your ears – it certainly does to mine. Here’s how one writer describes it. “A secular spirituality… brings heaven down to earth, and encourages everyone to be their own priest. It bows in … a gesture of wonder and awe, not to any god or deity.”
There you have it – secular spirituality. I hope you heard the emphasis on the self in that description. Everyone gets to be their own priest, the writer said. You could even say this is the great commandment of secular spirituality – you shall pursue yourself with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and you shall not allow your neighbor’s views to infringe upon your own. That is the heartbeat of our age, where I am the source of all spiritual reality. Indeed, the hallmark of secular spirituality is not that everyone becomes a priest. It’s that everyone becomes his or her own god.
And it’s here that we begin to see why convictional Christianity is out of step with our secular age. At the heart of the Christian faith is the affirmation that we believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. Christianity begins, in other words, with the authority of the Triune God – an authority to which we must submit. To seek God, you must do so on his terms, not your own. To seek God, you must die to yourself, not pursue yourself. And that is the rub between convictional Christianity and secular spirituality. By all means, we should bow in wonder, as that secularly spiritual writer said. But we bow in wonder to God as he defines himself. To seek the things of God, then, the Bible demands that we do so on God’s terms, not our own.
And that brings us to Luke 14. You may be wondering, “What does secular spirituality have to do with the Jewish religious leaders and the Sabbath?” And the answer is, “Quite a lot, actually.” It’s true that the Jewish religious leaders were not infected with the same mindset as our day, but their root problem was the same. The Jewish religious leaders were committed to pursuing God, but only on their terms. At the core, that’s why they oppose Jesus. It’s not that they doubt his miracles or can’t understand his teaching. The religious leaders oppose Jesus because they don’t want to submit their spirituality to his supremacy. They refuse to admit that Jesus’ authority far surpasses anything they can claim for themselves. And that’s why they oppose him – because they will not seek God’s kingdom on God’s terms. In that sense, the religious leaders and our secular age are actually quite similar. Both evidence humanity’s natural inclination to make ourselves the source of spiritual truth.
And that reveals the value of this passage for our day. It would be easy to dismiss this text as having nothing to say to a world like ours, but that would be the wrong conclusion. As we witness Jesus correct the religious leaders, we hear his correction to our age as well. And at the core, that correction is this – to seek God and his kingdom, you must do so on God’s terms, not your own. And God’s terms are defined by Jesus Christ.
Of course, what does that look like in detail? That’s where our exposition comes in. As we study this passage, we can break it down as three corrections from Jesus. If we want to seek God’s kingdom on God’s terms, what does that look like? That’s what Jesus tells us in this scene. Let’s notice what he says.
Submit to the Authority of Jesus
The first correction comes in vv1-6: To seek God’s kingdom, you must submit to the authority of Jesus. The setting for the scene is described in v1, as Jesus is invited to a dinner party at the home of a Pharisee. This dinner party is the setting for the next several scenes, all the way through v24. So, it’s a significant encounter, at least in Luke’s presentation of Jesus’ ministry.
But while a dinner invitation normally implies a pleasant evening, this meal will be less than pleasant. Notice again the tone of v1 – “One Sabbath, when he went to dine at the house of a ruler of the Pharisees, they were watching him carefully.” That doesn’t sound friendly, does it? That’s because it’s not! The idea is to watch someone suspiciously, to look for an opportunity to criticize. In fact, this same word is used back in chapter 6 to describe a similar situation – a healing on the Sabbath. Luke ch6, v7 – “And the scribes and the Pharisees watched him, so see whether he would heal on the Sabbath, so that they might find a reason to accuse him.” Two different Sabbaths, but the same attitude from the Pharisees. They’re looking for a reason to accuse Jesus.
So, when a man with dropsy shows up in v2, it’s natural to ask, “Did the Pharisees orchestrate this entire situation? Did they pick the Sabbath day on purpose to see how Jesus would respond to this man with a medical condition?” That’s the tone for the entire evening. They’re watching Jesus with suspicion.
Now, I’ve already mentioned the connection with an earlier Sabbath controversy, and that similarity is key to these verses. Both the Pharisees’ attitude and Jesus’ response are very similar to previous encounters. Notice, for example, Jesus’ response in v3 – “And Jesus responded to the lawyers and the Pharisees, saying, ‘Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath, or not?’” That’s very similar to the question Jesus asked back in chapter 6 – is it lawful to do good on the Sabbath? And notice the Pharisees’ response, or I guess we should say their non-response, v4 – “But they remained silent.” Again, just like what happened in chapter 6. They refuse to answer Jesus’ question.
Why won’t they answer? In part, because Jesus has backed them into a corner. If they say, “Yes, it is lawful to heal,” then why are they watching him carefully, and why does their tradition prohibit such healing? If they say, “No, it’s not lawful,” then why are they opposed to showing mercy on the day God established for the wellbeing of his people? They have to remain silent because there’s no way out. Jesus has exposed them, again, just like he did back in chapter 6.
But the similarities continue. The replay keeps going, you might say. After Jesus heals the man in v4, which is almost an afterthought, he asks them another question, v5 – “And he said to them, ‘Which of you, having a son or an ox that has fallen into a well on a Sabbath day will not immediately pull him out?’” That is similar to the point Jesus made one chapter earlier, Luke chapter 13 v5. Remember the woman with the disabling spirit whom Jesus healed on the Sabbath? And remember the synagogue ruler getting upset that she had come on the Sabbath? “Come on the other six days,” he said. At that moment, Jesus made the same point he’s making here – the Pharisees have a double standard. They’ll show compassion when it’s in their interest, so why not now? Do you see what Jesus is doing with this repetition? He’s exposing that they actually know the answer. The issue here has nothing to do with the Sabbath. The issue has everything to do with the authority of Jesus – an authority to which they refuse submit.
We could say at this point that the Pharisees have learned nothing from their earlier encounters with Jesus. There has been no self-examination. There has certainly been no repentance, no change. That’s why Luke includes these remarkably similar scenes. The repetition is telling us, “These men have learned nothing.”
And the end of this exchange makes the point abundantly clear. Notice v6 – “And they could not reply to these things.” Now, that’s an interesting way for Luke to say it. They could not answer these things. What is Luke getting at? It’s that Jesus’ wisdom has so far surpassed the Pharisees, they literally have no response. He has confounded them. His insight, his authority, and his wisdom are so far beyond what they possess, there is nothing they can do.
And that circles back to v1. Think about it. They invited Jesus because they wanted to pick at him, to criticize him. But that’s precisely where they go wrong. This is not a Man to be debated with. This is the Man you must submit to. You don’t get to argue with Jesus and try to make him fit your understanding. No, you shift your understanding to fit what is true about him. That’s really the point of this final Sabbath controversy. The religious leaders have learned nothing. They keep looking for a debate, but by doing so, they fail to offer the response that is necessary – submission.
The correction we see with the religious leaders is the correction for our day as well. To seek God and his kingdom, the first step – the non-negotiable beginning point – is submission to the authority of Jesus. There is no true spirituality, to use the popular phrase, apart from the admission that Jesus sets the terms. Jesus defines truth. Jesus is the authority over God’s kingdom. The Pharisees wouldn’t submit to that, and therefore, they missed the kingdom. Many in our day are on the same path.
For Christians, then, this means we need to recover the vital importance of being consistently and publicly committed to the Scriptures. Remember, the authority of Jesus Christ is expressed in and through the Word of God, the Bible. So, to submit to the authority of Jesus, we must submit ourselves to the authority of the Scriptures.
But sadly, this is something that the church has lost sight of. Part of the reason secular spirituality is so potent and plausible is because the church has gone along with the idea that we can define the terms for coming to God. Think of how easily churches and Christians treat the Bible like a cafeteria line of spiritual truth. I’ll take a little of this truth because it works for me, but I’ll pass on things like repentance and judgment and holiness because those don’t really fit my taste. That is functionally the same attitude Jesus confronts at this dinner party. We don’t get to set the terms. Jesus does not submit to us. He does not conform to our expectations. We submit to him, in and through his Word.
So, practically speaking, one of the most important things you and I can do as Christians in this crazy culture is make it very clear that our lives are submitted to the Scriptures. To say it another way, we, as a church, need to be more clear – not less – about our submission to what God says is good and beautiful and true. Of course, we do that with as much wisdom and winsomeness as we can muster. Submission to the Scriptures doesn’t equate with being shrill and caustic. But it does equate with being clear. That ought to be at the heartbeat of our testimony as Christians and as a church.
And that begins personally, or at least it should. Each one of us ought to be regularly asking God to show us where we are not living in submission to the Scriptures. In fact, let’s just get this acknowledgement out of the way right now. Every one of us has areas of life where we are not submitting to the authority of Jesus as we ought. That’s true for all of us in this room, in one way or another. Ok, with that admission out in the open, let’s ask God to shape us according to his Word. Let’s ask for the humility to be quick to repent. And let’s ask for the grace to remember that a counter-cultural witness in our day begins right here – in submission to the authority of Jesus in his Word.
To seek God’s kingdom, you must do what the Pharisees would not, and that is submit to the authority of Jesus.
Embrace the Wisdom of Humility
As we look back to Luke 14, the dinner party keeps going, and Jesus proceeds to give a second correction. In vv7-11, Jesus addresses the guests at the party, and his correction is this. To seek God’s kingdom, you must embrace the wisdom of humility. Now, what prompts Jesus to speak at this point is the evident pride of those in attendance. V7 states it clearly – Jesus “told a parable to those who were invited, when he noticed how they chose the places of honor.” So, you can imagine the scene. People are arriving at the party, and as they come in, folks are choosing the best seats for themselves, namely, those closest to the host. No one wants to be on the outskirts of the conversation, right? So, they’re angling to be seen and noticed by others.
And it takes some level of pride to do that. You have to think pretty highly of yourself to choose the best seat. This is not the first time Jesus has addressed the pride of the religious leaders. Back in chapter 11, he pronounced a warning to the Pharisees on precisely this point. Ch 11, 43 – “Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces.” Once again, then, it appears the religious leadership of Israel has not learned from Jesus’ rebuke. Pride continues to be their mode of operating.
But in this instance, Jesus uses an illustration – Luke calls it a parable – to demonstrate the danger of unchecked pride. In vv8-9, Jesus envisions an embarrassing social disaster. Notice what he says, v8 – “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not sit down in a place of honor, lest someone more distinguished than you be invited by him, and he who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give your place to this person,’ and then you will begin with shame to take the lowest place.’” So, Jesus’ point is straightforward. If you pridefully assume the best seat is for you, then you run the risk of being publicly embarrassed when the host asks you to move. It’s an outworking of Proverbs 16.18, isn’t it? “Pride goes before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.” That’s the illustration. Jesus warns about the danger of pride.
The alternative, however, is the way of wisdom – or, we might say, the wisdom of humility. Notice v10 – “But when you are invited, go and sit in the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, ‘Friend, move up higher.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who sit at table with you.” Now, some people might say that Jesus is simply being shrewd here, giving a more effective strategy for social advancement. But that is a cynical reading that says more about the interpreter than it does the text. Rather, Jesus’ point is about the wisdom of humility. In God’s economy, it is wise to live humbly. Again, Jesus is simply echoing the Proverbs here, this time chapter 3, v34 – “to the humble, God gives favor.”
And that is really what this exchange is all about. That is what the Pharisees and the religious leaders don’t understand. Their approach to all of life, including where to sit at a dinner party, runs counter to the wisdom of God. They’re missing the point, and in this instance, it is pride that blinds them. This is important. Jesus is not merely giving life tips in this parable; he’s getting to the heart of the matter. If the Pharisees want to seek God’s kingdom, then it will require a fundamental re-shaping of how they think about life.
And we know this is what Jesus is getting at by what he says in v11. Here we learn that Jesus is thinking about more than dinner parties and social etiquette. He’s thinking about the kingdom of God. Notice what he says, v11 – “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.” This is the foundation of the parable. This is the point the religious leaders miss. In God’s kingdom, the path to glory runs through humility. In fact, Jesus just made this point in the last chapter, Luke ch13. Do you remember the conclusion to Jesus’ teaching on the narrow door? He was describing who would sit at the table in the kingdom of God, and Jesus said it was the last who would be first, while the first would be last.
Do you see the connection, then, with v11 in this passage? Jesus is teaching about the way to enter God’s kingdom. If you insist on your own way, your own effort, you own exaltation, God will humble you on the last day. But if you humble yourself, trusting that only God can bring you to his kingdom and to his table, then on the last day, you will be exalted – not by your own effort, but by God’s grace in Christ.
I cannot overstate how central this truth is to Jesus’ ministry. In God’s kingdom, the path to glory runs through humility. Indeed, this truth has been a theme of Luke’s Gospel since the very first chapter. You may not remember, but Mary herself, in her magnificent song, declared this truth. Luke ch1, v52, Mary sang that God “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate.” That’s just another way of saying, “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”
This is essential to understanding the good news of the kingdom of God. To seek God’s kingdom, you must embrace the wisdom of humility. And specifically, the wisdom of humility means you confess that you don’t deserve any seat at God’s table, let alone the seat of honor. Instead, humility is expressed through faith. It’s a humble trust that if I am going to sit at the table in the kingdom, it will only be because Christ himself has brought me to the feast, that his sacrifice has paid my cost, and that his worthiness is now shared with me through faith in the gospel.
If you are not a Christian this morning, I pray you hear the call of God’s kingdom in this passage. These verses are more than a simple dinner party, and it’s more than a lesson on how to avoid social embarrassment. Through his parable, Jesus is calling you to the humility of faith. You cannot seat yourself at God’s table in the kingdom. You cannot earn salvation through your own decision and effort. Salvation is a gift of grace. A place at God’s table is something only he can provide. And he has provided that salvation through the death and resurrection of Christ. So, if you’re not a Christian this morning, then hear this good news. You cannot save yourself. You cannot bring yourself into the kingdom. But God, in his grace, will bring you in, through faith in his Son. To seek God’s kingdom, you must embrace the wisdom of humility, and I pray that by his Spirit, God would give you that kind of faith this morning.
Live for the Promise of the Last Day
The emphasis on the kingdom of God carries on into Jesus’ final correction, this time from vv12-14. To seek God’s kingdom, you must live for the promise of the last day. Again, Jesus shifts his focus. He moves from addressing the guests to addressing the host. Notice what he says, v12 – “He said also to the man who had invited him, ‘When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite your in return and you be repaid.” Now, that’s a lot to take in, but we could summarize the point like this – don’t associate only with those who can pay you back. Don’t build relationships only with those who may benefit you down the road. It requires no grace to live with such a quid pro quo mindset.
Instead, Jesus says we ought to serve those who cannot pay us back. Notice v13 – “But when you give a feast invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you.” So, this is the alternative to the self-serving mindset of v12. Citizens of God’s kingdom ought to prioritize serving the least of these. This is very similar to what Jesus said back in chapter 6, right before he instructed his disciples to love their enemies. And that’s really what Jesus is getting at. Citizens of God’s kingdom live in this world in a way that demonstrates they don’t belong to this world. In fact, this is how we testify that our citizenship is in heaven – by living on earth in a way that makes clear our treasure is not here, but with Christ in the heavenly places.
Of course, that is a difficult way to live, isn’t it? It is much easier to live for earthly treasure. It is much easier to focus on the kinds of relationships that provide some earthly payoff. This is hard, which raises the question, “How can you possibly live this way?” Notice Jesus’ final word in this passage, v14. This is key – “For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” You know that is a reference to the last day, and that’s the answer, brothers and sisters. It is the promise of the last day that enable Christ’s followers to live for the kingdom today.
When I trust that my standing with Christ is secure and that my citizenship is firmly fixed in heaven, then I am able to serve those who cannot serve me back. Then I am able to love my enemies. Then I am able to choose a life of humility. Why? Because I’m just more spiritually-minded than others? No. Because I simply exerted the moral willpower necessary to live a sacrificial life? No. Then why am I able to live this way? Because the reality of the last day – indeed, the promise of the last day – is so powerful, it shapes and sustains how I live in the present.
This is how the kingdom of God works. When we say the kingdom of God has broken in to this age, we mean, in part, that it has broken in through our lives. God’s rule and reign are seen today through the redeemed and transformed lives of his people, the church.
Brothers and sisters, I could preach this passage in a way that essentially tries to guilt us into living sacrificial lives of service in this world. I could present these verses in a way that basically says, “Look how bad these religious leaders are. Don’t be like that.” But that’s not the gospel of the kingdom. At best, that’s moralism dressed up in religious sounding language.
Instead, I want us to see these verses, as much as we can, from Jesus’ perspective. And that perspective is this – God’s kingdom is more glorious and more real than anything this world can offer. And in that kingdom, there is nothing more satisfying for the Christian than to hear the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.”
So, should we live humbly today? Yes. Should we serve others sacrificially today? Yes. How do we do that? Not by the exertion of our own moral fortitude, but by the promise of the last day, the glorious day, when God receives his children into his presence. That day is coming, brothers and sisters, and by embracing that future day in faith, we receive the grace needed to live today in the reality of God’s kingdom. To seek God’s kingdom, we must live for the promise of the last day.
Biblical spirituality is not a self-oriented quest. We are not free to seek God’s kingdom on our terms. We must do so on God’s terms – submitting to the authority of Jesus, embracing the way of humility, and living today in light of the end. So, as we close today, we pray that God’s kingdom would come – particularly that his kingdom would come to occupy our hearts and minds in such a way that we live today for the future glory that is ours in Christ Jesus. Amen.