Hard to Take?

There’s so much in Luke 22 that I want to just focus on its three main characters: Judas Iscariot, Peter, and Jesus.

Judas: We start the chapter with his agreeing to betray Jesus. Luke doesn’t tell us why, but in all the other gospels, this happens after an incident at Bethany. Jesus has returned to the home of Martha and Mary, and their brother – Lazarus. In John 11, an illness took the life of Lazarus and Jesus raised him from the dead. That’s why when Jesus arrived at Bethany, a dinner was given in His honour and Mary, still full of gratitude, poured expensive perfume on His feet (John 12:2-3). Some of the guests were indignant. The perfume was worth nearly a year’s wages and they thought she had wasted it (Mark 14:4-5), but Jesus told them to leave her alone; she had done a beautiful thing (Mark 14:6). That’s when Judas goes to the priests to ask about betraying Jesus. Judas loved money, and Jesus’ attitude to it offended him.

Peter: He and John were sent to prepare the very last meal Jesus would have with His closest friends here on earth. The meal begins and as they eat, Jesus talks to Peter, using his old name. “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat. But I have prayed for you, Simon, that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers” (Luke 22:31-32). Peter protests that he’s ready to be imprisoned and even to die, but Jesus knows better. By the end of the chapter, Peter has denied knowing Him three times, just as predicted. Peter’s also the one Jesus had to chastise for fighting when He was arrested (John 18:10-11). Doctor Luke is the only gospel-writer to tell us Jesus healed the servant after Peter cut off his right ear with a sword. What was written about Jesus had to be fulfilled, but Peter took exception to the way things were playing out.

Jesus: After eating supper, He goes with His friends to a familiar place of prayer – so familiar, in fact, it’s the place Judas has arranged to betray Him. Jesus encourages them to pray, then goes a little farther away to bring His request to the Father. “Please take this cup of suffering away from Me. Yet I want Your will to be done” (Luke 22:42). He surrenders His life to God and at that point, an angel comes and strengthens Him. This strengthening leads to more earnest prayer and Luke puts his doctor-hat on again, saying Jesus is in such agony that He sweats drops of blood – a medical condition called hematidrosis (when someone’s under extreme stress, capillaries in the sweat glands can break, mixing blood with sweat). But while Jesus agonised in prayer, His friends were falling asleep. They were exhausted from grief and hadn’t come to the point of surrender, like their Master. “Why are you sleeping? Get up and pray,” He says, and along come His adversaries. When Peter fights to try to prevent His arrest, Jesus commands: “No more of this.” Jesus was mocked by those guarding Him. They blindfolded Him and demanded to know who struck Him. He was well able to answer the question and shut them up, but He didn’t. Jesus went through all that He had to, in order that God’s Word would be fulfilled and He would become the price paid for the wrongs of many people (Isaiah 53:11).

Judas took offence; Peter took exception; Jesus took it all in His stride.

What about us? Are we offended by Jesus? Do we take exception to the way He works? Or will we, as individuals, take Him into our hearts and surrender to what God has for us?

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Look Up

My absolute favourite verse in this chapter is Luke 21:28: “Now when these things begin to happen, look up and lift up your heads, because your redemption draws near.” It inspired a song I once wrote, and it’s an encouragement to every Christian.

‘When these things begin to happen’ refers to the things Jesus had been speaking of: The destruction of the Jewish temple, and the run-up to the end of the world. Many will claim to be the Christ; nations will come against each other; earthquakes, famines and diseases; dreadful sights and miraculous signs from heaven; believers brought to trial by the authorities; persecution even by close family; distress for pregnant women and nursing mothers; signs in the sky; storm-tossed seas; confusion and anxiety on the earth. Do any of these sound familiar? From the time Jesus was taken up into heaven after His resurrection until now, we’ve been in the last days; in limbo if you like, as we wait for Jesus’ return.

A verse that’s always puzzled me has been Luke 21:32. It says: “This generation will not pass from the scene until all these things have taken place.” But all these things haven’t taken place! The world hasn’t ended, and all of the generation Jesus was talking to (even John, who lived to quite an age) have passed away. “Birth of the Church” explains the word ‘Generation’ can also mean race, Jesus’ point being that the Jews will remain as a people until all these things have taken place. That makes much more sense.

This is a word to me as much as anyone that when we’re faced with wars or natural disasters, trials, problems in our relationships, or any kind of difficulty, we can do as Jesus says: Look up; lift our eyes, because our redemption (the time of our freedom) is drawing near.

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There are 3 chapters of Luke left and we’re approaching Easter. I’ll aim to post alternate days this week, so we can read the last chapter on Easter Sunday.

Behind the Questions

In the previous chapter, Jesus was zealous for the temple, driving out the animal-sellers with the rebuke that they were turning it into a den of thieves. Now the priests, teachers of the Law and elders (I’ve nicknamed them the ‘Religious trinity’) come to Him with a question. They want to challenge His authority, so they ask who gave Him the right to do these things (Luke 20:2). Jesus responds with a question of His own about His relative, John the Baptist. “Did John’s authority to baptise come from heaven, or was it merely human?” He already knows they’ll avoid answering, but His question makes them search their hearts. What do they believe about John, and therefore about Him?

Jesus then launches into one of His stories, this time about tenants looking after a vineyard. When the harvest was due, they attacked those who came to collect it on behalf of the owner. Finally they killed the owner’s son, who was heir to the estate. Jesus concludes with another question. “What do you suppose the owner of the vineyard will do” (Luke 20:15)? He’s explaining the kingdom of God to them. God’s kingdom is the vineyard, but those leaders who are in charge of it will be displaced in favour of others because of their shameful treatment of Jesus. They’re well aware He’s using the story against them (Luke 20:19).

In their annoyance, the leaders send out undercover spies. Pretending to be honest, they ask about paying taxes to Caesar, but really they’re trying to trap Jesus so they can report Him to the Roman governor. He cleverly answers by holding up a coin with Caesar’s image on it. “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and give to God what belongs to God.” They’re stunned into silence.

Next, it’s the Sadducees’ turn to question Jesus. I learnt from “Birth of the Church” that Sadducees don’t subscribe to any of the Pharisaic traditions. They pin their faith solely on the writings of Moses, from Genesis to Deuteronomy – the first five books of the Bible. Deuteronomy 25:5-6 states that if two brothers live together and one dies leaving his wife without children, the other should marry her, and their firstborn son be considered the son of the dead brother in order to carry on his name. That’s why in an attempt to disprove resurrection from the dead, the Sadducees take this to the extreme. If a woman marries seven brothers and all of them die, whose wife will she be at the resurrection? Jesus responds, and also proves from Moses’ writings that there really is a resurrection (Luke 20:34-38).

No one dares ask Him any more questions, but Jesus has one final puzzle. To get them thinking more deeply, He asks how the Christ can be David’s son when David refers to Him as Lord. “The LORD said to my lord, ‘Sit by Me at My right side until I put Your enemies under Your control’” (Psalm 110:1).

What’s behind the questions we ask? Are we challenging people? Trapping them? Trying to disprove something? Or do we have more positive motives?

Truly Seeing Jesus

This chapter seems filled with the constant presence of a crowd. First, at Jericho, we meet Zacchaeus who’s too short to see over the crowd and climbs a tree. Jesus famously told him to come down and was welcomed into his home. Zacchaeus recognised Jesus as Lord of his life when he offered to give half his possessions to the poor and make repayments to anyone he may have cheated (Luke 19:8).

Next, Jesus tells a story to illustrate that God’s kingdom’s not going to come immediately. As the story puts it, a nobleman goes on a long journey, during which time some say they don’t want him as their king. When he returns having been crowned, there’s no good in store for his enemies. Luke makes the effort to tell us the crowd was listening to every word (Luke 19:11), and it’s just as well.

Jesus’ story is so important because the very next thing we see is Him entering Jerusalem as King. Hundreds of years before, God’s spokesman Zechariah foretold that Jerusalem’s King was coming, humble and riding on a donkey (Zechariah 9:9). Now into Jerusalem comes Jesus, peaceably and riding on a donkey. If He hadn’t prepared people, it would have been easy to think this might be the moment when everything reached its fulfilment. On Sunday, Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem will be remembered in churches all over the world. It’s called Palm Sunday because as Jesus rode along in the centre of the procession, some spread their clothes on the road while others used tree-branches to give Him the red-carpet treatment (Matthew 21:8-9; John 12:12-16).

But as He came towards Jerusalem, the truth was inescapable: Not everyone would be as receptive. Within days, the establishment would have Jesus hung on a cross. He wept at the realisation. “Before long your enemies will build ramparts against your walls and encircle you and close in on you from every side. They will crush you into the ground, and your children with you. Your enemies will not leave a single stone in place, because you did not recognize it when God visited you” (Luke 19:43-44). This did physically happen in 70 AD. Jerusalem was invaded by the Romans and the Jewish temple destroyed.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at the beginnings of Samaria. It struck me then how different the world would have been if Jeroboam had trusted in and made God his security. Now I’m having a similar thought. What a different week it would have been if Jerusalem had recognised Jesus as her Saviour! No one plotting to kill Him; no betrayal; no trial; no death … Perhaps time and the world would have ended, giving way to the new heaven and new earth that Christians look forward to today. It’s all speculation of course, because it didn’t happen that way. Jesus died, and took the sins of the world on Himself.

Jerusalem didn’t acknowledge the saving power of Jesus and faced the physical consequences, but in a spiritual sense, it’s the same for us. Paul talks of being spiritually dead, but made alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:1-5). To experience what Jesus has for us, we need to be like Zacchaeus and give Him carte blanche over our lives. If you were in that crowd on Palm Sunday, would you have recognised Jesus?

Like a Child

What kind of person do you have to be to receive the kingdom of God – His reign and influence in your life? Jesus tells us in Luke 18:17: “Anyone who doesn’t receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” Four examples in the chapter illustrate His point. Think of a four-year-old child as you read these.

Example one: The widow who kept coming to a judge with her case, until he gave her justice because he was worn out by her constant pleas. “Learn a lesson from this unjust judge. Even he rendered a just decision in the end. So don’t you think God will surely give justice to His chosen people who cry out to Him day and night? Will He keep putting them off? I tell you, He will grant justice to them quickly” (Luke 18:6-8). When small children ask their parents for something, they ask anticipating that they’ll get it, not that it’s going to take months or years. Do we have faith to come to God in that way?

Example two: A religious leader and a tax collector – one reeling off his many achievements, while the other beats his chest in sorrow and appeals to God for mercy. Children don’t have a long list of accomplishments to their names; all they can do is depend on the adults around them to give them what they need. It reminds me of the line in the song: “Empty-handed but alive in Your hands”.

Example three: Jesus encouraging the rich man to sell what he had. Children don’t own entire houses in which to horde possessions; they live much more simply. Are we content with food and clothing (1 Timothy 6:6-8), or is what we have never enough?

Example four: The blind man, begging at the roadside. There was no welfare system back then. Someone with a disability’s only option was to beg; they had nothing to offer. Similar to the tax collector, all this man could do was appeal for mercy, and he got it. He received his sight.

Let’s come to God in childlike trust – not depending on anything of our own, but completely on Him. Let’s receive what He’s got for us.

The Suffering Servant

The end of Luke 17 really shows Jesus’ divine nature and His humanity. Jesus talks to His followers about the return of the Son of Man – a title He used for Himself. “People will tell you, ‘Look, there is the Son of Man,’ or ‘Here he is,’ but don’t go out and follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one end to the other, so it will be on the day when the Son of Man comes” (Luke 17:23-24). I imagine this being similar to the time they caught so many fish, and Peter asked the Lord to go away from him because he realised his sinfulness. It must have overwhelmed them sometimes – being in the company of one who was human like them, but at the same time so glorious. Jesus’ return’s going to be visible to everyone – the sky lit up from one end to the other!

But in the very next verse He says: “First the Son of Man must suffer terribly and be rejected by this generation.” I was struck by this. We’re now into the last third of Luke’s gospel – the last part of Jesus’ life, and He brings up the subject of His suffering and rejection. All-knowing, He sees all the mockery and the physical pain He’ll have to endure; and glorious as He is, it doesn’t take away His suffering.

“My life is poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax, melting within me” (Psalm 22:14).

“His face was so disfigured He seemed hardly human” (Isaiah 52:14).

These are just some of the things Jesus went through for us the day of His death.

One thing about Jesus dying for me is that He’ll always understand suffering. I’ll never have to go through the depth of agony that He did, but as we heard from Jesus a couple of weeks ago, students are not greater than their teacher (Luke 6:40). In order to share in His glory, I need to share in His sufferings. I mustn’t shrink from this. “If you cling to your life, you will lose it, and if you let your life go, you will save it” (Luke 17:33). Jesus tells us to remember Lot’s wife – a woman right back in the book of Genesis. The city where she lived was destroyed. She and her family had an opportunity to escape, but she looked back at what she was leaving behind – and turned into a pillar of salt! Because she looked back, she lost her life and her future.

I never want to forget the suffering Jesus went through for me. “For the joy that was set before Him He endured the cross, scorning its shame” (Hebrews 12:2). As I share in His sufferings, may my focus be on the joy that’s waiting for me in heaven. Jesus is a great example to follow.

Home

Luke 16 starts and ends with one of Jesus’ stories, and both have the same theme.

Story one: A man’s about to be fired for wasting his employer’s money, so he calls in the debtors and tells them to change what they owe his employer, thereby cancelling some of their debt so that when he is fired, he knows there will be people who’ll want to be generous to him and welcome him into their homes. Though the man was acting dishonestly, Jesus uses this as a lesson to us: We should use worldly wealth to make friends, so they’ll welcome us to an eternal home (Luke 16:9). Can you picture the people you’ve blessed in your lifetime, waiting to welcome you into heaven?

Story two: A rich man lived in luxury, while a poor man named Lazarus was often put at his gate (Luke 16:20). Imagine this beggar – his body covered in sores; too ill to move himself, so he’s put at the rich man’s gate in the hope he’ll be fed. Even the dogs lick his open sores, but the rich man does nothing. When both men die, they’re sent to different places: Lazarus to the arms of Abraham (Luke 16:22), and the rich man to a place of great pain. “Father Abraham, have some pity! Send Lazarus over here to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue. I am in anguish in these flames” (Luke 16:24). The rich man’s so used to asking for what he wants and getting it, but not anymore. He had the good things in life while he lived, Abraham tells him, but Lazarus had nothing and now he’s being comforted. There are no more chances for the rich man; no one can cross from one place to the other. That must have heightened his anguish, and finally he shows some compassion. If Lazarus can’t cross over to help him, could he please go to earth for his five brothers? “I want him to warn them so they don’t end up in this place of torment” (Luke 16:28).

What I want you to take away from this second story is that there really is a place of torment. I was told about the rich man and Lazarus at primary school, but no one explained it was a true story. Only the night I became a Christian did I feel convicted that it was real. When the preacher said: “Imagine you’re locked in a room. It’s hot and there’s nothing to cool your hands,” that story came alive for me; they weren’t just words on a page anymore. Then the preacher explained that when Jesus came along, He could make all our wrongs disappear (Isaiah 53:6). For the first time I knew that following Jesus led to heaven, but the alternative led to that fiery place of torment.

Only God can bring His words to life in your heart, so I’ll put these questions to myself and you can consider them too if you like. How am I living my life? Am I using my resources (my time, my words, my finance) to bless others? Will those I’ve blessed be waiting to welcome me into my eternal home? And am I still grateful to Jesus for taking my punishment, so I’ll never have to experience that place of torment?

The Wayward Son

This is such a famous chapter in the Bible. The first two stories deal with an animal and an object, whereas the last one focuses on the loss of a person.

Jesus talks about great rejoicing when the sheep and coin are located. It reminds me of a book I’ve just started reading about the disappearance of Madeleine McCann, and her parents’ absolute determination to get to the bottom of what happened to her. You see a parent’s love and you think how they would rejoice the day their daughter was found. Although it’s eleven years on now, we can still pray for that outcome.

The story of the lost (or prodigal) son is rather different. He hasn’t disappeared; he’s left of his own volition, but he’s still lost to the father and to the family. We’re not told how long the son was away; only that he wasted all his money in wild living (Luke 15:13). Later when he returns, the older son tells the father: “All these years I’ve slaved for you”, which might give us a clue. The older son would have received a double portion of the inheritance on his father’s death, so the younger would have owned one-third of the estate, which could have taken several years to spend.

At around the time his money runs out, there’s a famine and the starving son is hired by a local farmer, but no one gives him anything to eat. He thinks of the hired servants at home with enough food and some to spare, so he makes his way back. He’s forfeited his rights as a son, but maybe his father will take him on as a servant.

The father clearly hadn’t lost hope, if he saw him coming from a long way off. Perhaps he was out looking for him. Perhaps he’d been scouring the neighbourhood weekly or daily since his son left, and now here he is. The father runs to meet him and organises a lavish celebration, but this son isn’t an only child; his brother’s involved too.

I must admit I do sympathise with the older son in the story. His brother’s wilfully taken their father’s money, which in that culture would have been akin to wishing him dead. He’s made no effort to contact them until the money’s all gone … Now suddenly he’s back in the fold and their father’s beside himself with joy! It doesn’t seem right, but the heart of the older son can be seen in that phrase I quoted earlier: “All these years I’ve slaved for you” (Luke 15:29). He’s slaved. He’s served resentfully, not with joy. In a sense, perhaps he’s been as wayward as his brother, inwardly if not on the outside. The father wants both sons restored to him.

In so many sermons, we’re told the older son represents the religious leaders, while the younger represents the sinner who’s dependent on God’s mercy, but I think the older son could be me sometimes. I love the thought of people coming to God and living their lives for Him, but people who call themselves Christians and wilfully go against Him? I really struggle with that. I’d like to think when someone turned and came back to God, my response would be one of happiness and joy, but what about when their past mistakes have caused hurt and mistrust? Can I risk trusting them again? Can I believe they’re genuine?

What God ultimately wants is the same as the father in that story – for everyone to be restored into relationship with Him, so I need to look at my attitude as well. I know there are times I’ve resented God for things He hasn’t done, and I’ve felt more like a slave than the daughter of a King. Perhaps it’s time to admit we’ve all been wayward in our own ways, and we’re all dependent on the mercy of God. Because of His love for us, that mercy is ours for the taking.

Banquet

I wrote this in 2007, inspired by Luke 14:12-24.

* * *

Don’t invite your friends to lunch or dinner, Jesus said;
They’ll return the favour, so you can be repaid:
Invite the suffering and the poor – the ones who can’t repay,
And you’ll have your reward from God at Resurrection Day.

Think about the wedding feast to share up there in heaven –
Many invitations sent, and poor excuses given:
A field; livestock; marriage – these cannot compare
To the wonder of our Saviour, who’s waiting for us there.

So the suff’ring poor come flocking in, with nothing much to give –
Nothing but their lowly spirits, broken hearts and lives:
Jesus looks at them with love; renews their troubled hearts,
And in that great and wondrous feast, they all can have a part.

But as for those invited first, who spurn God’s lovely Son,
How can they expect to taste the banquet that’s to come?
So go to Jesus; ask Him now to wash your sins away,
So you can be included in that glorious wedding day.

Jesus looks at you with love; He’ll gladly wash you clean,
And on that day your righteousness will shine for all to see:
Dressed up in your finery – linen pure and white,
You’re more than just a wedding-guest; you’re part of Jesus’ bride!

One More Chance

I never met my great grandmother, but one story about her always makes me sad. At the end of her life, when she was very ill, she would say repeatedly (in Welsh): “What have I done? What have I done?” thinking her illness some sort of punishment from God. I wish she had read Luke 13, where Jesus addresses that very thing. Some Galileans have just been murdered whilst offering sacrifices at the temple. “’Do you think those Galileans were worse sinners than all the other people from Galilee?’ Jesus asked. ‘Is that why they suffered? Not at all! … And what about the eighteen people who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them? Were they the worst sinners in Jerusalem? No’” (Luke 13:2-5). I can imagine the progression of Jesus’ thoughts. There’s no correlation between suffering and sin, but people are so quick to put others down! And so He tells a story about a fruitless tree. The owner wants it cut down, but the gardener asks him to give it one more chance.

And straightaway, this ‘One more chance’ story is lived out. Back in Luke 6, Jesus healed a man on the Sabbath, leaving His enemies enraged. Now, here’s their chance to react differently. As He’s teaching, again in a synagogue, Jesus sees a woman. Luke tells us she’s crippled by an evil spirit, and has been bent double for eighteen years. I suppose her sickness would be similar to arthritis. Jesus touches her and instantly she can stand up straight. How she praised God, Luke says, and it’s hardly surprising is it? But the synagogue leader tells the crowd they shouldn’t come for healing on the Sabbath. Perhaps Jesus would have stayed silent had he kept his grievance to himself, but turning the crowd away? Doing exactly what Jesus had talked about in chapter 11 – not entering God’s kingdom himself, and keeping others from it (Luke 11:52)? “You hypocrites!” Jesus says to those in charge. “Don’t you untie your ox or your donkey from its stall on the Sabbath and lead it out for water? This dear woman, a daughter of Abraham, has been held in bondage by Satan for eighteen years. Isn’t it right that she be released, even on the Sabbath?” According to Luke, Jesus’ words shamed His enemies (Luke 13:17). Good; I should think so! They had a chance to show compassion and failed – miserably.

As the chapter comes to a close and Jesus continues teaching on His way to Jerusalem, He talks about entering God’s kingdom through the narrow door. John explains this best in his gospel. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). If people try to enter heaven any other way, they’ll be denied. “He will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’ Then you will say, ‘But we ate and drank with You, and You taught in our streets.’ And He will reply, ‘I tell you, I don’t know you’” (Luke 13:25-27).

In a nutshell, God is the God of one-more-chance. But at the end of our earthly lives, there won’t be any more chances. To go through the narrow door, you need to know Jesus personally. For those privileged to have spent time with Him during His life on earth, eating and drinking or listening to Him in the streets, that won’t be enough; Jesus has to have come into their hearts. If you don’t think He’s come into yours, all you have to do is ask Him.