Gathering and Sending Out the Disciples
1. And having called together His twelve disciples, He gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases.
2. And He sent them out to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick.
3. And He said to them, “Take nothing for [your] journey, neither staffs, nor pack, nor bread, nor silver, neither have two tunics apiece.
4. And into whatever house you enter, there remain, and thence go out.
5. And as many as shall not accept you, when you come out of that city, shake off even the dust from your feet for a testimony against them.”
6. And going out, they passed into the villages, announcing the gospel and curing everywhere.
7. But Herod the tetrarch heard all things that were done by Him, and was perplexed, since it was said by some that John was risen from the dead;
8. And by some, that Elijah had appeared; and by others, that one of the ancient prophets had risen again.
9. And Herod said, “John I have beheaded; but who is this about whom I hear such things?” And he sought to see Him.”
At the end of the previous episode, when the little girl who seemed to be dead was brought back to life, Jesus commanded that her parents give her something to eat. In sacred scripture, giving someone “something to eat” is about spiritual nourishment. It refers not only to teaching, but also spiritually nourishing one another with words of encouragement, especially when our encouragement is in line with spiritual truth. To the extent that we do this for one another, we become God’s disciples and apostles, cooperating with Him in the work of salvation. We are “disciples” while in His presence, learning from His Word. And we are His “apostles” when we are being sent out to minister to others, through our words and actions.
It is appropriate, then, that the next chapter begins with a description of Jesus first calling together His twelve disciples, and then sending them out to minister to others. As it is written, “Having called together His twelve disciples, He gave them power and authority over all demons, and to cure diseases. And He sent them out to preach the kingdom of God, and to heal the sick” (Luke 9:1-2).
In a deeper sense, the gathering together of the twelve disciples, before sending them out as apostles, represents an important step in our spiritual development. This begins when Jesus “calls His twelve disciples together” in us. This “calling together of the disciples” represents that time in our lives when we begin to understand matters of the spirit more deeply. Every “disciple” represents an essential spiritual principle. As we “gather” these principles together in our minds, striving to see how they cohere and relate to the larger whole, we begin to see the connections between ideas, and we develop a keener discernment between what is primary and what is secondary. As a result, we can apply the truth we have been learning more usefully in our lives. 1
After gathering together His disciples, Jesus sends them forth as His apostles, giving them specific instructions for the journey. “Take nothing for your journey,” He says to them. They are not to take a staff, or a backpack, or bread, or silver, or even an extra change of clothes. Every word has spiritual significance. They will not be needing a “staff,” because they will be relying on the Lord alone. They will not need a “pack” to store up what they have learned, because the Lord will give them what to say. They will not need “bread” or “silver,” because the Lord will provide all the goodness (“bread”) and all the truth (“silver”) they need. And they will not need an extra tunic because they will be clothed in truth from the Lord, and will not need anything additional from themselves.
In this case, less is more. When there is less of self, there is more of God. 2
Shaking off the dust
Jesus then says to them, “And into whatever house you enter, there remain, and thence go out. And as many as shall not accept you, when you come out of that city, shake off even the dust from your feet for a testimony against them” (Luke 9:4-5). A “house,” as we have mentioned before, represents the human mind. It is the place where we think things over, consider our options, and dwell on those matters that are significant to us. Our “house,” then, is our spiritual residence, our “dwelling-place.”
Spiritually speaking, everyone has a dwelling-place — a set of beliefs about themselves, about others, and about God. Because of this, some people will accept the teachings of the apostles gladly, while others will reject them. Knowing this in advance, Jesus tells them that if their teachings are rejected, the apostles should leave the house, come out of the city, and “shake the dust from off their feet.”
In sacred scripture, the term “dust” refers to things that are low and relate to the world of the external senses. Just as dust settles to the earth, there is a tendency to remain focused on things that gratify our worldly senses without lifting our minds to higher things. In the Hebrew Scriptures, this is represented by the lowly serpent who deceived Eve. As it is written, “So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this … you shall eat dust all the days of your life” (Genesis 3:14). 3
Jesus’ instruction to “shake off the dust” is sound advice, not only for the apostles, but for each of us. Along the spiritual journey, as we are learning truth and putting it into our lives, we may, at times, find ourselves being dragged down to lower things — those things that are merely worldly and temporal. This is, spiritually, “the dust on our feet.” Whether the dust comes through the negative influence of others or the self-serving thoughts we entertain, Jesus tells us to “shake the dust from off our feet,” and continue our journey. 4
This is precisely what the apostles do. As it is written in the next verse, “And going out, they passed into the villages, announcing the gospel and curing everywhere” (Luke 9:6).
Dealing with Herod
While the disciples are conducting their missionary activities, rumors are spreading about a prophet who has come back from the dead. Some say that Elijah has appeared again. Some say that an ancient prophet has come back to life. And some say that John the Baptist, whom Herod beheaded, has risen from the dead (Luke 9:7-8). All of this is greatly troubling to Herod who is described as being “perplexed” (Luke 9:7). “John I have beheaded,” says Herod, “but who is this about whom I hear such things?” (Luke 9:9).
Herod is especially perplexed because he hears that John the Baptist, whom he has beheaded, might be alive again and that Jesus is working miracles. All of this is a threat to Herod. At a deeper level, John the Baptist represents the literal meaning of the Word, and Jesus represents the spiritual sense of the Word. When understood rightly, combining the letter and the spirit, the Word can fill us with goodness and truth. These qualities and their derivative offspring — kindness, mercy, forgiveness, generosity, understanding, and love — are not only perplexing to the devils of hell, but they also bring about torment. Similarly, Herod, who represents evil in the human heart, is perplexed and tormented. That’s because evil spirits cannot stand to be near goodness and truth. When they are in the presence of these heavenly qualities, they feel tormented and strive to get away. This is how evil spirits cast themselves into hell. 5
Herod has already beheaded John, the literal sense of the Word. Now he is determined to go after Jesus — the spiritual sense of the Word. As it is written, Herod “sought to see Him” (Luke 9:9). Jesus, however, is unruffled. As we will see in the next episode, Jesus remains focused on His mission and continues to work His miracles.
10. And, having returned, the apostles told Him whatever they had done; and taking them, He departed by Himself to a deserted place of the city called Bethsaida.
11. And the crowds, knowing [it], followed Him; and having received them, He spoke to them concerning the kingdom of God, and healed those that had need of a cure.
12. And the day began to decline; and the twelve coming said to Him, “Send the crowd away, that going away into the villages and fields all around, they may rest and find provisions; for here we are in a deserted place.”
13. But He said to them, “Give ye them to eat.” But they said, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, if we go not and buy food for all this people.”
14. For they were about five thousand men. And He said to His disciples, “Make them recline [in groups] reclining by fifties.”
15. And they did so, and had them all recline.
16. And having taken the five [loaves of] bread and the two fish, looking up to heaven He blessed them, and broke, and gave to the disciples to set before the crowd.
17. And they ate, and were all satisfied; and there was taken up [of] their excess of fragments twelve baskets.
Spiritual food is absolutely essential along the journey of spiritual development. Without it we will weaken; our dreams and aspirations will begin to fade; our hopes will dwindle; and we will experience something akin to spiritual death. We might feel, as the disciples did during the windstorm that rocked their boat, that we are “perishing” (Luke 8:24). Like Jairus’ daughter, we need to be spiritually fed so that we can remain alive. That’s why Jesus told her parents to “give her something to eat” (Luke 8:55).
In this next episode, we are given a dramatic illustration of what “spiritual feeding” is, how it can be done, and why it is so important. It begins with Jesus calling His disciples — now “apostles” — together again after their missionary adventures. As it is written, “And the apostles, when they had returned, told Him all that they had done. And He took them and went aside privately into a deserted place” (Luke 9:10).
Jesus takes them to a “deserted place” in order to illustrate a great spiritual truth. A “deserted place” represents a spiritual condition in which little is growing. In spiritual terms, this description corresponds to the absence of truth and goodness in our lives. It is a time of spiritual desolation, a time in which we feel that we are in desperate need of spiritual nourishment. It is into this “deserted place” that Jesus and His disciples now go, “but when the multitudes knew it, they followed Him; and He received them and spoke to them about the kingdom of God, and healed those who had need of healing” (Luke 9:11). This tender picture shows how God heals us when we come to Him, even in the midst of our emptiness and desolation. 6
The disciples, however, did not fully understand what was happening. Still operating under a principle of scarcity, they were afraid there would not be enough food to feed everyone, especially since they were in a deserted place. Therefore, they said to Jesus, “Send the multitudes away, that they may go into the surrounding towns and country, and lodge and get provisions; for we are in a deserted place here” (Luke 9:12).
Jesus, however, is unwilling to send anyone away. Instead, He says, “You give them something to eat” (Luke 9:13). The disciples are confused. After all, there were about five thousand people there, and the disciples don’t know how they can possibly feed them all. So, they say to Jesus, “We have no more than five loaves and two fish, unless we go and buy food for all these people” (Luke 9:13). Jesus turns this situation into an opportunity to teach another spiritual lesson. While it is true that the apostles do not have much, just five loves and two fish, God can work with whatever we have and whatever we are willing to give. Since “bread” (because of its softness and warmth) represents love, “five loaves” represents a small quantity of love.” Similarly, since “fish” (because it is associated with the cleansing property of water) represents truth, “two fish” represents a small quantity of truth. In other words, they did not have much good and truth, or love and wisdom — just a little. But that is all God needs in order to produce great miracles. 7
The lesson is a profound one: when we find ourselves in a desolate state of mind, we can still bring to God whatever remnant of goodness and truth we have, no matter how little, and God will bless it and multiply it so that we can be spiritually fed. This is what Jesus now illustrates. As it is written, “Then Jesus took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke them, and gave them to the disciples to set before the multitude. So, they ate and were filled, and twelve baskets of the leftover fragments were gathered together” (Luke 9:16-17).
The picture of Jesus looking up to heaven and blessing the food is an image of the life of prayer — the moment of consecration when we humbly ask God to come into our lives with His presence, filling our hearts with His love, and our minds with His wisdom. Next, Jesus gives the bread and fish to the disciples and asks them to distribute it to the multitudes. This represents the way in which God calls each of us to pass on to others what He has given to us. We only need to dedicate to Him the little that we have, and He will bless it abundantly. This is pictured by the fact that all were completely fed, so much so that “twelve baskets were left over.” 8
The Risks of Discipleship
18. And it came to pass as He was praying alone, the disciples were with Him; and He asked them, saying, “Who do the crowds say that I am?”
19. And they answering said, “John the Baptist; but others [say] Elijah; and others that some one of the ancient prophets has risen again.”
20. And He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answering said, “The Christ of God.”
21. And He admonished them, [and] charged [them] to tell this to no one,
22. Saying that the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised up.
23. And He said to all, “If anyone wills to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.
24. For whoever wills to save his soul shall lose it; but whoever shall lose his soul for My sake, he shall save it.
25. For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, but lose himself, or be deprived [of his soul]?
26. For whoever shall be ashamed of Me and of My words, of him shall the Son of Man be ashamed, when He shall come in the glory of Him, and of the Father, and of the holy angels.
27. But I say to you truly, There are some of those standing here, who shall not taste death, until they see the kingdom of God.”
In the previous episode, just before distributing the loaves and the fishes, it is written that “Jesus looked up to heaven” before blessing and breaking the bread (Luke 9:16). In the Jewish culture, the dedication of the bread before a meal is a form of prayer. It is an expression of gratitude to God who brings forth bread from the earth. Throughout the Gospel of Luke there has been a strong emphasis on prayer. It begins with Zacharias at prayer while in the temple (Luke 1:9-13). Only in Luke is it mentioned that Jesus is at prayer during His baptism (Luke 3:21); and only in Luke does it say that before Jesus appointed His disciples, He “continued all night in prayer” (Luke 6:12).
It is not surprising, then, that in a gospel that focuses on faith, understanding, and prayer, the next episode begins with a picture of Jesus at prayer. As it is written, “And it happened as He was alone praying, that His disciples joined Him, and He asked them, saying, ‘Who do the crowds say that I am?’” (Luke 9:18). They tell Jesus that some people think He is John the Baptist, while others think He is Elijah. Still others say that He is “one of the old prophets who has risen again” (Luke 9:19).
According to others, there is nothing especially divine about Jesus. Some think he might be the prophet Elijah who also worked miracles in former times. Others think he might be John the Baptist or one of the old prophets who has come back to life. Jesus then asks the more important question. It’s not a question about what others think. It’s a question about what the disciples think, especially since they have been close to Him for a while now and have been learning from Him. Eventually, each of us will come to the same crossroad in our faith journey. The time comes when we must ask ourselves not, “What do the crowds say about Jesus?” but rather “What do I say about Jesus?” And so Jesus says to His disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20). Without hesitation, Peter answers and says that Jesus is “The Christ of God” (Luke 9:20).
Jesus neither confirms nor denies Peter’s comment. But His response implies that Peter has answered correctly. “Tell this to no one” says Jesus to His disciples (Luke 9:21). This is the messianic secret, and it is a secret for a reason. People must decide for themselves. It’s up to each individual to decide where one stands on the question of Jesus’ identity, and whether or not to follow Him. If we do decide to follow Him and be guided by His truth, Jesus wants us to know in advance that it will not be easy. Describing Himself as “the Son of Man,” He says that “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day rise up” (Luke 9:21).
In the literal sense this statement is a prediction of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. More deeply, it describes how people will treat the Divine truth that Jesus came to teach. Although they will reject it and attempt to destroy it, it will rise again in human hearts. 9
This process of crucifixion and resurrection takes place in each of us. Every time we learn a new truth (receive the “the Son of Man”) and strive to put it into our life, we can expect to be challenged by doubts and insecurities. These challenges arise when evil spirits refuse to relinquish their hold over us. This is what Jesus means when He says that the Son of Man “must suffer many things.” These attacks will take the form of clever reasonings and rationalizations, the justifications and excuses that tell us the struggle is not worth it and that it would be much easier to just give up and return to our old ways. These are the subtle and sinister lies that are produced by evil spirits within us, signified by “the elders, chief priests, and scribes.” Thus, we will “suffer many things.”
The struggle to remain steadfast, staying true to what we believe and living according to it, is our “cross.” If we call upon God in prayer, persevere in the truth, and refuse to succumb to the bidding of our lower nature, the truth in us will be strengthened. It will “rise up” within us. This is what Jesus is referring to when He says that “the Son of Man will rise up” on the third day.” It is our spiritual resurrection.
This is the journey that each of us must make in the course of regeneration, and Jesus makes it clear that this journey will be a rugged one. It will involve the willingness to put off old habits, give up entrenched attitudes, and spiritually die to former ways of thinking and feeling. In brief, Jesus is urging us to deny our old ways of living and begin a new life. As Jesus puts it, “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it” (Luke 9:24).
In these words, Jesus makes it explicit that those who choose to follow Him must be willing to give up egotistic desires, destructive habits, and everything associated with mechanical and selfish ways of thinking and responding. It might feel like a death, and the struggle may be painful, comparable at times to what Jesus was about to face on the cross. Moreover, this will not be a one-time event. As Jesus puts it, “Let him take up his cross daily.”
Jesus then raises an important question. He asks, “For what advantage is it if a person gains the whole world, and is himself destroyed or lost?” Jesus then adds, “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, of him the Son of Man will be ashamed when He comes in His own glory, and in His Father’s, and of the holy angels” (Luke 9:25-26). In other words, a true disciple will manifest a courageous faith, a faith that is unafraid and unashamed, a faith that will boldly declare the truth and live according to it. In addition, Jesus promises that those who manifest this faith in word and deed will see the kingdom of God before they die. As Jesus puts it, “There are some standing here who shall not taste death till they see the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:27).
This idea, that God would come to earth through a promised Messiah, was very much at the forefront of people’s consciousness. Jesus’ comment that “they would not taste death” before the coming of the kingdom must have reinforced their belief that the kingdom was coming soon — a much anticipated event. This was good news, especially because they longed for a Messiah who would defeat their enemies, establish peace, and bring about economic prosperity. What they didn’t realize, however, was that the Messiah was already there, in their very midst, offering them the kingdom of God. For those who remained faithful, taking up their cross daily, it would become clear that Jesus’ promise was true. They would see that the kingdom of God had already come to earth, even while they were still alive.
The kingdom that Jesus said would come during their lifetime would not be a physical one. It would not be a kingdom of military security and economic prosperity; rather, it would be a spiritual kingdom offering security from spiritual enemies (through receiving the Divine truth that Jesus taught) and spiritual prosperity (through receiving the Divine love that Jesus shared).
This is what it means to “see” the kingdom of God. 10
28. And it came to pass about eight days after these words, that taking Peter and John and James, He went up into a mountain to pray.
29. And it came to pass, while He prayed, that the appearance of His face was changed, and His vesture [was] white [as] lightning.
30. And behold, two men spoke with Him, who were Moses and Elijah,
31. Who, being seen in glory, told of His departure which He was about to fulfill in Jerusalem.
32. And Peter and they who were with him were heavy with sleep; and being awake, they saw His glory and the two men standing with Him.
33. And it came to pass as they were separated from Him, Peter said to Jesus, Master, it is good for us to be here; and let us make three tabernacles, one for Thee, and one for Moses, and one for Elijah; not knowing what he said.
34. And as he said these things, there was a cloud, and it overshadowed them; and they feared as they entered into the cloud.
35. And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, This is My beloved Son; hear Him.
36. And when the voice had come, Jesus was found alone; and they were silent, and reported to no one in those days any of those things which they had seen.
As the next episode begins, Jesus is, once again, at prayer. As it is written, “And it came to pass, about eight days after these sayings, that He took Peter, John, and James and went up into a mountain to pray” (Luke 9:28). As we have pointed out, the Gospel of Luke is filled with instances of Jesus at prayer. In this case, for example, we read that “while He was praying the appearance of His face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening” (Luke 9:29).
This moment in biblical history, when Jesus reveals His divine identity on the mountaintop, is known as the “Transfiguration.” While it is also recorded in Matthew (Matthew 17:1-2), and in Mark (Mark 9:2-3), only in Luke is it mentioned that all of this happened while Jesus prayed.
As Jesus prays, profound changes take place. Not only is His face altered, and His robe begins to gleam, but while He is in prayer the spiritual world opens to Him. As it is written in the next verse, “Then, behold, two men talked with Him, who were Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of His decease which He was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:30-31). “Moses” and “Elijah” represent the law and the prophets — the whole of the Hebrew Scriptures, and especially the prophesies about the coming of the Messiah, His death, and His resurrection. In the depth of His prayer, as He is lifted up into the spirit, Jesus is given a clear vision that He had indeed come to fulfill the messianic prophecies.
Peter, John, and James are also with Jesus, but they don’t yet see the vision because they are “heavy with sleep” (Luke 9:32). Eventually, though, they do awaken, and as they come into a state of greater awareness, they catch a glimpse of Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus. In addition, they also hear a voice saying, “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him” (Luke 9:35).
This is the second time that a voice from heaven has spoken in this gospel. The first time was at the occasion of Jesus’ baptism. At that time, the message was addressed directly to Jesus: “You are My beloved Son,” it said. “In You I am well pleased” (Luke 3:22). This time, however, the message is addressed to the disciples: “This is My beloved Son. Hear Him.”
We can imagine the effect this must have had on the disciples. Jesus had just told them that if they wanted to follow Him, they must be willing to deny themselves, even if it meant “losing one’s life.” This is sometimes referred to as “the cost of discipleship.” It’s not an easy decision. But the miracle on the mountaintop — the vision of Moses and Elijah speaking with Jesus, and the voice from heaven proclaiming that Jesus is indeed God’s Son — must have given them deep reassurance that their decision to follow Jesus was the right one. In addition, the voice from heaven was for them, and it couldn’t have been clearer. It said, quite simply, “Hear Him.”
It is interesting that the voice from heaven did not say “Hear them.” After all, Moses and Elijah had also been present. Peter, in fact, was so moved by the sight that he said to Jesus, “Let us make three tabernacles; one for You, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33). In his own way, Peter was trying to express his wonder and awe. For Peter, the three tabernacles would equally honor three great prophets: Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But Jesus was more than a prophet; the voice from heaven had said, “Hear Him.” From now on, the human understanding of the Law (Moses) and the human understanding of the Prophets (Elijah), would be superseded by the Good News of the gospel — what Jesus said and did. In Jesus alone was to be found the proper understanding and interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures. And that is why the voice from heaven did not say “Hear them.” Instead, it focused on Jesus. “This is My beloved Son,” it said. “Hear Him.”
As the episode draws to a conclusion, the voice ceases, and the vision vanishes. As it is written, “Jesus was found alone” (Luke 9:36). In this moment the disciples sense the difference between their humanity and Jesus’ divinity. They may not be able to articulate it yet or even understand it, but they realize that something sacred has happened. It’s something that they will have to think about, and reflect on before sharing their experience. And so, it is written that “They kept quiet, and told no one in those days any of the things they had seen” (Luke 9:36).
“Let These Words Sink Down Into Your Ears”
37. And it came to pass on the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, [that] a crowd of many met Him.
38. And behold, a man from the crowd cried out saying, Teacher, I entreat Thee, look upon my son, for he is my only begotten.
39. And behold, a spirit takes him, and he suddenly cries out; and it convulses him with foaming, and roughly departs from him, bruising him.
40. And I entreated Thy disciples that they would cast him out, and they could not.
41. And Jesus answering said, O faithless and perverse generation, till when shall I be with you, and bear with you? Bring thy son hither.
42. And as He was yet coming, the demon tore him, and convulsed [him]; but Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father.
43. And they all wondered at the greatness of God. And while they all marveled at all that Jesus did, He said to His disciples,
44. Put ye these words into your ears; for the Son of Man shall be delivered up into the hands of men.
45. But they were ignorant of this saying, and it was hidden from them, that they did not comprehend; and they feared to ask Him concerning this saying.
The mountaintop experience must have had a profound effect upon the disciples. They had seen Moses and Elijah; they had heard a voice from heaven; and they were given clear instructions: “Hear Him.”
Unable to grasp the full import of what they had seen, they “kept quiet” and told no one. In our mountain-top states, we, like the disciples, glimpse something of Jesus’ divinity. It is a blessing that comes to each of as we strive to ascend in our understanding. As we do so, prayerfully acquiring knowledge about God through the Word, and applying it to our lives, God descends into our understanding with enlightenment and illustration. In brief, as we ascend to meet God, God descends to meet us. 11
This picture of the disciples high on the mountaintop in the presence of a transfigured Jesus opens the way for an understanding of what is about to take place in the next episode. As it is written, “Now it happened on the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, that a great multitude met them. Suddenly a man from the multitude cried out, saying, ‘Teacher, I implore You, look on my son, for he is my only child’” (Luke 9:38). Apparently, the child was possessed by a spirit that caused him to have violent convulsions which caused the boy to foam at the mouth and bruise himself. The boy’s father had asked the disciples to cast out the spirit, but they were unable to do so. So, the man comes to Jesus, begging for help. “I implored Your disciples to cast it out,” says the father, “but they could not” (Luke 9:40).
Jesus responds by saying, “O faithless and perverse generation, till when shall I be with you, and bear with you?” Then He turns to the father and says, “Bring your son here” (Luke 9:41). At the beginning of this chapter, the disciples were given the power to cast out demons and to cure diseases. In fact, “They went through the towns, preaching the gospel and healing everywhere” (Luke 9:6). What had become of their ministry? Why were they now powerless to cast a spirit out of a demon-possessed boy? What had changed? And why did Jesus reprimand the disciples for their failure, calling them a “faithless and perverse generation”?
While a specific answer is not given in the text, it may be that their confidence has been shaken by Jesus’ recent description of what it would be like to follow Him. While they had fancied themselves as becoming rich, famous, and popular, Jesus had painted a very different picture of discipleship. It would involve a willingness to struggle and deny oneself, to take up one’s cross daily, and even be ready to lose one’s life.
This must have caused considerable doubt in their minds. It must have caused them to pause and to ask themselves, “Is it worth it? Worth dying for?” Even the three disciples who had been on the mountaintop with Jesus did not necessarily experience the extraordinary vision and voice from heaven in a way that strengthened their resolve to be disciples. To be sure, while they were on the mountaintop, witnessing Jesus’ transfiguration and hearing a voice from heaven, they must have felt assurance that following Jesus, and hearing Him, was the right thing to do.
But states change. As they “came down” from the mountain, old doubts may have begun to resurface. The path that Jesus was walking was not one they had envisioned. What Jesus was describing was quite different from the glory and honor, riches and prosperity that had been hoping for. Instead, Jesus had spoken about going to Jerusalem where the Son of Man would suffer many things, and even be killed. They did not understand. After all, they were waiting for the time when Jesus would establish Himself as king — and they would be part of His royal court, first in line for privileges, position and honor.
Jesus, however, said nothing about that kind of a kingdom. He was talking about self-denial and self-sacrifice. This was very different. This was very hard. Understandably, the disciples began to doubt, and as their doubt increased, their faith began to waiver. As a result, they were unable to cast out demons or cure diseases. Seeing into their hearts, and witnessing their rising doubts, Jesus told them that they had become a “faithless and perverse generation” (Luke 9:41). 12
After reprimanding His disciples, Jesus proceeds to heal the child and give him back to his father. Once again, everyone present is “amazed at the majesty of God” (Luke 9:43). But Jesus has something else in mind for His disciples. He wants them to understand that discipleship is not just about performing great miracles and amazing the crowds. Therefore, “while everyone marveled at all the things which Jesus did,” Jesus took the disciples aside and said to them, “Let these words sink down into your ears” (Luke 9:43-44). In other words, what Jesus is about to say is something He really wants them to know and understand, well before it happens. On the mountaintop a voice from heaven had already said to them, “Hear Him.” And now Jesus is telling them the same thing in different words. As Jesus puts it, “Let these words sink down into your ears.”
What was it that Jesus wanted to tell them? What message was so important that He would preface it with such a dramatic utterance? It was this: “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men” (Luke 9:44). He had already told them about the Son of Man and the trials that were imminent — that He would suffer many things, be rejected, killed, and rise up on the third day (Luke 9:22). But as hard as He tried to get the message across, “They did not understand…. It was hidden from them so that they did not perceive it” (Luke 9:45).
It wasn’t that Jesus was hiding anything from them. Rather, what Jesus was telling them about the kingdom of God was so far from their understanding that it was incomprehensible to them. They simply could not understand that the kingdom of God would involve self-denial, personal suffering, even death. Nor did they understand what Jesus meant by “rising up” on the third day. They were not yet able to let Jesus’ words “sink down into their ears,” and thus into their minds.
Eventually, though, Jesus would gradually open their understanding. But it would take time.
Learning to Receive
46. And there entered into them a reasoning which of them should be greatest.
47. And Jesus, seeing the reasoning of their heart, took a little child [and] stood him by Himself,
48. And said to them, whoever shall receive this little child in My name receives Me, and whoever shall receive Me receives Him that sent Me; for [whoever] is least among you all, he shall be great.
49. And John answering said, Master, we saw one casting out demons in Thy name, and we forbade him, because he follows not with us.
50. And Jesus said to him, Forbid [him] not; for whoever is not against us is for us.
Clearly the disciples still had many lessons to learn. Even as Jesus is telling them about the trials that the Son of Man is about to suffer, their attention is upon themselves and their own glory. As it is written, “And there entered into them a reasoning which of them should be greatest” (Luke 9:46). The spirit of “reasoning” that entered into them describes their descent to lower levels. They have come down from the mountain now and are back to their old ways, reasoning and disputing about who will be greatest among them in the coming kingdom. 13
In order to resolve the dispute, and replace their selfish reasoning with spiritual understanding, Jesus sets a little child beside Himself, turns to the disciples, and says, “Whoever receives this little child in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me receives Him who sent Me. For he who is least among you all will be great” (Luke 9:48).
Once again, Jesus turns their mixed-up, self-centered ideas of what it means to be “great” upside down. When they came down from the mountain and could not cure the demon-possessed boy, Jesus referred to them as a faithless, “perverted” generation. The term “perverted” means, quite literally, “to be turned the wrong way,” or to get things upside down. By setting a child by His side, Jesus endeavors to straighten out their understanding, to get it “right side up.” He wants to show them that greatness does not lie in personal glory, but rather in becoming humble and receptive — like a child. Notice how often Jesus uses the word “receives” in his explanation. “He who receives this little child in My name receives Me,” says Jesus. “And whoever receives Me, receives Him who sent Me” (Luke 9:48).
The lesson is clear. We must allow it to sink down into our heart, even as we allow Jesus’ words to sink down into our ears. It’s all about reception — and reception can only occur when people are humble, not when they are puffed up with pride or focused on achieving personal greatness. We do not earn heaven by our efforts to be great. It’s not about being rich and famous, honored and prosperous; it’s about being humble and receptive, as a child. 14
The spirit of discipleship
Learning to be receptive, then, is a key to our spiritual development. It’s a lesson that the disciples would need to learn if they were to become true disciples. The opposite of being receptive, however, is being unreceptive and inhospitable. We have already seen the inhospitable nature of Simon the Pharisee. He did not receive Jesus as he could have, nor did he receive the woman who washed Jesus’ feet (Luke 7:36-50). It is a parable about the spiritual dangers of exclusion — shutting God and others out of our lives. Being open, receptive, and hospitable is one of the hallmarks of discipleship. It is the opposite of being close-minded, selective, and exclusive.
The disciples seem to feel that since they have been personally chosen by Jesus, their work is superior to that being done by others. For example, John says, “Master we saw someone casting out demons in Your name, and we forbade him because he is not one of us” (Luke 9:49).
Ironically, Jesus had just rebuked the disciples for their inability to cast out demons. In this episode, the disciples are forbidding others — who are obviously more successful than they are — from doing so. Apparently, the disciples believe that they are the only ones qualified or commissioned to cast out demons in Jesus’ name. Jesus, however, wants them to know that the true spirit of discipleship does not restrict the practice of Christian principles to a chosen group. Rather it recognizes everyone as a disciple who focuses on love to the Lord and love to the neighbor, the two essentials of faith. These two principles are the heart and lungs of all true believers — no matter how widely they may diverge in ritual practices or in doctrinal beliefs. Therefore, Jesus tells them how they should treat the person who is casting out demons in His name, and why they should permit him to continue: “Do not forbid him” says Jesus. “For he who is not against us is for us” (Luke 9:49). 15
There are many faiths, many versions of Christianity, and many well-meaning religions that encourage their adherents to overcome pride, greed, lust, and self-will. Though their rituals and doctrines may vary, they are all striving to “cast out demons.” Therefore, they should be permitted to continue their work, for each of them, in their own way, is “for” Jesus — not against Him. It might even be said that they are all “disciples,” no matter what their religion might be, as long as they are practicing spiritual discipline, and living according to the same principles that Jesus teaches. 16
Rejected by the Samaritans
51. And it came to pass when the days were fulfilled for His being taken up, He fixed His face to go to Jerusalem,
52. And sent messengers before His face. And going, they entered into a village of the Samaritans to prepare for Him.
53. And they did not accept Him, because His face was going to Jerusalem.
54. And when His disciples, James and John, saw [this], they said, Lord, willest Thou that we tell fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, as Elijah did?
55. But turning, He rebuked them and said, you know not of what sort of spirit you are;
56. For the Son of Man came not to destroy men’s souls, but to save. And they went to another village.
As Jesus continues to instruct His disciples, He passes through Samaria. He is on His way to Jerusalem where He knows He will meet severe opposition. As it is written, “Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53).
The phrase “set His face” calls to mind Isaiah’s prophecy: “For the Lord God will help Me; therefore, I will not be disgraced; I have set My face as a flint, and I know that I will not be ashamed” (Isaiah 50:7). The phrase, “set My face as a flint” perfectly describes the steadfast, unflinching resolution with which Jesus has accepted His mission, regardless of the suffering He will endure. His faith is steady and unflinching, in contrast to the wavering faith of the disciples.
As Jesus and His disciples pass through Samaria, He sends some of them ahead to see about preparations — perhaps to arrange for food and lodging. But when the Samaritans see that this is a group of Jews on their way to the temple in Jerusalem, they refuse to provide hospitality.
Historically, most Samaritans believed that the “real” temple was on Mt. Gerizim and not in Jerusalem. The conflict was an ancient one, and the fact that Jesus was headed to Jerusalem served to rekindle the animosity, making Him and His disciples unwelcome guests. After all, the Samaritans believed that Mt. Gerizim was the site that God Himself had chosen for the establishment of the holy temple — not Jerusalem. Therefore, they would have ridiculed any notion that Jesus and His Judean disciples would expect hospitality from them, their archrivals.
This incident takes on greater interest when we consider the episodic connections. This story about the inhospitality of the Samaritans follows immediately after two episodes in which Jesus teaches His disciples about the importance of being receptive (Luke 9:44-48), and about being tolerant when it comes to differences in religious practice (Luke 9:49-50). In this episode, though, the roles are reversed: Jesus and His disciples experience what it means to be excluded for religious reasons. As it is written, “But they did not receive Him, because His face was set for the journey to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:53).
All along, Jesus has been preparing His disciples for situations such as this. When He delivered the Sermon in the Plain, He told them, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27); and when He sent out the twelve disciples, He told them, “Whoever will not receive you … shake off the very dust from your feet” (Luke 9:5).
This could have been the opportunity for the disciples to put into practice what Jesus has been teaching them. They could have responded with love rather than with anger; they could have responded with forgiveness rather than retaliation. Instead, they choose to fall back on their old patterns. James and John, for example, are so upset by the Samaritan’s rejection that they say to Jesus, “Lord, do You want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them, just as Elijah did?” (Luke 9:54).
It is true that Elijah called down fire from heaven to destroy those that opposed him (2 Kings 1:2-14), but Jesus does not want it to be that way among His disciples. They are to be ruled by a different spirit — a spirit of forgiveness, mercy, and compassion. They are to love their enemies, not destroy them. Therefore, Jesus says to them, “You do not know what manner of spirit you are of. For the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s souls, but to save them” (Luke 9:55-56).
The reference to Elijah brings to mind the scene on the mountaintop when Peter suggested that they build three tabernacles: one for Jesus, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. But the voice from heaven was very clear. The disciples were told to focus on Jesus. “Hear Him,” it said. From then on, the words and actions of the Hebrew prophets would no longer be their final authority. They were to place their faith in Jesus alone.
It is fitting then, as this episode concludes, to note that the disciples may have finally decided to “hear Him.” He had told them to hold no animosity to those who would not receive them, but rather to “shake the dust off their feet.” Accordingly, we read that “they went into another village” (Luke 9:56).
Setting Our Hand to the Plow
57. And it came to pass, as they went in the way, a certain one said to Him, Lord, I will follow Thee wherever Thou goest.
58. And Jesus said to him, Foxes have holes, and the birds of heaven [have] nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay [His] head.
59. And He said to another, Follow Me. But he said, Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.
60. But Jesus said to him, Let the dead bury their dead; but go thou and preach the kingdom of God.
61. And another also said, I will follow Thee, Lord, but permit me first to take leave of those in my house.
62. But Jesus said to him, No one having put his hand to the plow, and looking backward, is suited for the kingdom of God.
It seems that the disciples are starting to learn a few lessons. At least they are not going to call down fire from heaven just because people are unwilling to provide hospitality. But they still have a long way to go before they fully appreciate what it means to take up one’s cross daily and follow Jesus. 17
All of this becomes clear in the next episode which begins when a certain person, perhaps one of the disciples, says to Jesus, “Lord, I will follow You wherever You go” (Luke 9:57). Jesus reminds him that it will not be easy. An itinerant disciple will have no money, no food, and no lodging. In fact, as far as physical amenities are concerned, a disciple will be worse off than the animals: “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” (Luke 9:58).
More deeply, Jesus is referring to the Divine truth (the “Son of Man”), and how it will be rejected. The Divine truth will have “nowhere to lay its head.” Throughout the gospels, the phrase “Son of Man” refers not only to Jesus, but also to the Divine truth that He came to teach. This is what is meant by “the rejection of the Son of Man.” 18
Turning to someone else, Jesus says, “Follow Me.” The person is willing, but says that He must first go and bury his father, a reasonable enough request. Jesus’ response is surprising: “Let the dead bury the dead,” Jesus says to him. “But you go and preach the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:60).
This is another one of those passages that seems unnecessarily severe in the letter. Ordinarily there would be nothing wrong with this. After all, the man simply wanted to bury his father, and the commandments teach us to “honor father and mother,” something that would surely include a decent burial. We need, therefore, to look deeper to understand the message that Jesus is conveying.
When seen spiritually, the term “father” in this context refers to the hereditary evils that we need to leave behind, the evils of self-will, arrogance, pride, conceit, resentment, and self-pity, to name but a few. All of this is symbolized by the word “father” — when used in a negative sense. This is because everyone inherits both good and evil traits from parents and ancestors. It is these evil traits which must be rooted out and unceremoniously left behind if a person is to regenerate and follow Jesus. Therefore, in this passage, the “dead” which are to be left behind without even a thought of a “burial” are those tendencies in ourselves that have no real life in them from the Lord. Most deeply, these negative traits are all forms of self-love, self-interest, selfish ambition, and the false ways of thinking that arise from these self-centered emotions. All of this must be allowed to die in us, without regret or remorse — without even a decent burial.
In other words, “Let the dead bury the dead.” 19
Finally, another person approaches Jesus, perhaps another disciple, and says, “Lord, I will follow You, but first let me go and bid them farewell who are at my house” (Luke 9:61). Once again, the request seems quite reasonable. After all, we can imagine the worry and concern it might cause if a person just disappeared one day without giving any kind of notice to his family. But Jesus is not willing to grant this request. Instead, He says, “No one having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).
“Putting our hand to the plow,” marks a new step in our regeneration. It is a symbol of the way in which we have prepared our heart, like good ground that has been well turned and made ready for Divine seed. When we have “put our hand to the plow,” we have made the transition from being led by truth and doctrine to a new state of being in which we are primarily led by love and mercy. Really, it is a shift from the letter to the spirit within the letter, a shift from Moses and Elijah to Jesus. In this new state, our spiritual life is no longer about “looking back” to matters of faith. We are now in a state of reception and looking forward to a life of unselfish service — putting our doctrine into life, and our faith into action in order to serve and advance the kingdom of God.
As we plow this new field, breaking new ground, we are still shunning the evils of self-love, and as we do so we find ourselves spontaneously extending love to all people whom we encounter. Although the understanding of doctrine and the pursuit of truth remain important to us, we do not allow it to separate us from others. Goodness itself, and doing good has now become primary. As long as we remain true to this new state, where the Lord is working through us, we will never allow doctrinal differences to divide us. The faith that was once primary and led us to understand love and mercy is now secondary. Being loving and merciful is now primary. Our hand is set to the plow, and we will not turn back. 20