Last week’s writing looked at the structure of the Gospel according to Luke, since it was the first of many weeks with that Gospel account; we are finally into the season of Pentecost. This week there is even more reason for looking at the structure of this account.
This week, the first verse of the gospel text [Luke 9:51-62] is a ‘turning point’ (see The Lutheran Study Bible, page 1702), the key, central verse which helps picture where the rest of the account is headed—literally: “When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” This is the verse that will take us to the very end of the book.
For several chapters after this text, you will find descriptions of things that Jesus did that are not told in any of the other three accounts. If it would be helpful to use the comparison of Jesus as the ox that is ploughing the field—having in mind the four gospel accounts and the four living creatures of the Lord’s throne—you may wish to think of these unique texts as new soil, new ground. And Jesus continues to overturn the lives of many different people, even today.
The people described in these following chapters have a variety of backgrounds. I thought it would be nice to make a list of the people mentioned when the text uses an historical present (describing something that happened in the past by using the present tense of a verb) to bring extra attention to the person doing the action—and to point out that Jesus continues to work on a variety of people, even today.
I would also like to note that, before this central verse, there were two historical presents: There was a Pharisee, Simon, who invited Jesus into his house (7:40), and there was someone who came from the house of a synagogue official who says, interestingly enough, that Jesus need NOT go to his house (8:49). He was basically UN-invited. After this verse, there is emphasis on another Pharisee, a lawyer, a manager (steward), a rich man, Abraham, the apostles, an unrighteous judge, and a nobleman (11:37, 11:45, 16:7, 16:23, 16:29, 17:37, 18:6, 19:22; these are indicated in the NASB translation with an *; Peter is also described in this way in 24:12, but some ancient manuscripts do not have this verse). Now THAT is a variety!
Another interesting aspect of this gospel text is that most of the text has a parallel in the Gospel according to Matthew. There is, though, a significant difference.
After Jesus heals many and a fulfillment passage is given, Matthew 8:18 goes along in this way: “Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side [of the Sea of Galilee]. And a scribe came up and said to him, ‘Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’”
In contrast to that, Luke 9:57 goes this way: “As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
What are the odds of someone asking Jesus the same question and Jesus giving the same answer? I would imagine that they are pretty good; Jesus has a pretty good memory. But having such a similar question-response, but in a seemingly different context, that makes most people think that these two texts are different recollections of the same event. With Matthew it seems that they are ready to go into a boat. With Luke it seems they are walking down the road. Why is that? A poor way of explaining the difference is by saying that these gospel accounts were written decades after the event and that the people who wrote them were not too good about remembering where Jesus was and what he actually said.
Were the disciples along a road or were they about to go into a boat? It IS possible that they were doing both at the same time. I especially think this is possible because the theme that was just emphasized in the Gospel according to Luke is like that of someone going down a road. The word really means just ‘path’ or ‘way’, and it is usually not translated as ‘road’. And in the Gospel according to Matthew, right in the previous verses, the author laid out the reason for the healings was to fulfill scripture; Matthew is again connecting the reader to the Old Testament, just as Luke is connecting the reader to the book of Acts (and ‘the Way’; see Acts 9:2).
Jesus is going down a particular path by heading to Jerusalem and by fulfilling the scriptures that he will be healing people. But his MAIN healing of ALL people will come just outside Jerusalem, on a cross.
These different perspectives are true and helpful for people in different situations. And it also should be said that the people that Jesus encountered were not a distraction. They were all people for whom Christ died. They made his love, his dedication, and also his obedience very real, tangible things.
This is the first of many Sundays that we will be looking at gospel texts from the Gospel according to Luke [8:26-39]. I thought, therefore, that it would be a good thing to look briefly at the big picture that this gospel account gives.
The big picture of any of the four gospel accounts is, of course, a big (and slightly unique) picture of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. But that message comes through the words of an ancient text, and that makes at least a little difference in the delivery of that message. In modern times, looking at the big picture of a certain text often means looking at an outline of that work. In ancient times, looking at the big picture often meant looking at the first words of the text.
Here are the first words of the Gospel according to Luke (the translation is based on the ESV, but there are some differences which attempt a more literal translation, and I have laid out the translation on the page to see a close similarity to what will follow):
… many took in hand to compile a narrative of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us,
it seemed good
… to me also, having closely followed all things from their source, to write accurately an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that concerning the things you have been taught, you may have certainly.
The use of ‘big’ words is deliberate; the writer of this account had a huge vocabulary. And one might think that the closest match to this first sentence of the Gospel according to Luke is the start of the book of Acts. But, actually, the writing at the Jerusalem Council in the middle of Acts (15:24-29) is the closest. Again, I have laid out the text so that it is easy to see a similar structure.
… we heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, to whom we did not give commission,
it seemed good
… to us, having come to one accord, to choose men and send them to you with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men who have given their lives for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who themselves will tell you the same things by word of mouth.
For it has seemed good
… to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these requirements: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols, and from blood, and from what has been strangled, and from sexual immorality.
If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well.
A friend of mine, the Rev. Dr. Kevin Armbrust, takes the ‘narrative of the things that have been fulfilled among us’ in Luke 1 as essentially the Old Testament. However far you go back with that first section of Luke 1, there is a noticeable progression of time going forward and a fewer number of people involved. The things have been fulfilled in the past, and now an accurate and orderly account is being given to someone. There were 'many' involved in the past, and now this account comes to one named Theophilus, whose name means, somewhat significantly, ‘lover of God’. In the second quote, there are ‘some’ persons who are causing trouble. And then after the turning point, the people being referenced are acting as one (‘one accord’; the phrase literally means, ‘one emotion’). And then, only four men are mentioned (and they are mentioned in pairs) who will take this letter.
You might be able to tell from the structure of these two documents that this language was saved for important things. It follows the structure of some ancient official documents (see BDAG, page 360). To translate that it ‘seems’ good may not be the best translation because of all the current uses of ‘seems’; something that ‘seems’ to be may have an unsure foundation. But, in ancient times, this literary structure stood solidly.
These are both important documents because these were important times. I cannot imagine how the writers might feel, being asked to write about Jesus. It is one thing to say something. It is another thing to write something down and make it permanent.
I have often said to people that I cannot imagine the Council needing four people to carry one small letter. I have also said that I think that there is something more going on here. I can picture these four men being sent off to give four slightly different perspectives on the life, death, and resurrection of Christ; this could be much like a ‘living’ gospel. This is literally a life-and-death situation for ALL involved.
As I have said before, just having one perspective would be too much of a history lesson. Having four different perspectives, each one being true, says that this man (actually God-man) is extremely important. With these four perspectives, there is also that connection to the four living creatures of God’s throne.
As time marches on, we can feel increasingly ‘lost in the crowd’. But the progression of the above statements is toward the particular, toward the ‘one’. (I would rather not use the term ‘individual’; it has too many negative connotations; perhaps we can talk about this another time.)
The seriousness of the introduction supports the fact that even just ONE person is significant. Certainly, a man with a lot of money would need to support such a huge literary undertaking, as Theophilus may have done. In the end, Jesus came for each one, whatever or whoever he or she may be.
This is the only Sunday in the church year when one could say that we focus on a teaching of the Church rather than a part of the life of Christ (and what he taught). This Sunday is Trinity Sunday, and the Gospel text this year is John 8:48-59. This will be our last look at the Gospel according to John for a long time, until Christmas Day. It would be good to look again at the bigger picture of this unique gospel account.
At the beginning of this Sunday’s text there is some serious name-calling going on; Jesus supposedly is a Samaritan and has a demon. But, by the end, the ‘Jews’ are picking up stones and are ready to kill him. Obviously the situation is getting worse.
First of all, it should be noted that this problem has been going on for a while. This talk of a group of people who are ‘Jews’ was first mentioned in 1:19, when that group sent some ‘priests and Levites’ from Jerusalem to find out more about John the Baptist. Obviously this group of Jews has some power, some authority. And we have seen other examples of authority being misused.
After Jesus does his first two miracles that are called ‘signs’, the next miracle described is a healing on the Sabbath. After that healing, the text says that ‘the Jews were persecuting Jesus, because he was doing these things on the Sabbath (5:16).’ After Jesus responded by saying, ‘My Father is working until now, and I am working’, there is this text: ‘This is why the Jews were seeking all the more to kill him, because not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God (5:18).’ When you compare that text to chapter 8, you can see that this problem has been going on for a while.
What is the overall structure of this gospel account, and how does this connect to the others? Certainly there are similarities of the gospel accounts to ancient biographies. But these gospel accounts, especially when viewed as a fourfold structure, are, in a sense, quite unique. This may be in much the same way as the one true God is unique.
Theologically, I like to make the connection of the Gospel according to Matthew to the Father, the Gospel according to Mark to the Son, and the Gospel according to Luke to the Holy Spirit. Although Jesus is frequently calling God his Father in the Gospel according to John, nowhere else is it so frequent as in the Gospel according to Matthew. And in the Gospel according to Mark, Jesus is very much on his own; sometimes even his disciples are against him! And in the very first verse he is called the Son of God. While the other accounts of course emphasize the Son, this is especially true in this account. And the same person who wrote the Gospel according to Luke also wrote the book of Acts, and we see the Spirit playing a significant role at the beginning of that work.
So, if those three similar accounts do connect to Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in some way, then what about the Gospel according to John? That gospel account might be compared to a blessing at the end of a service. The pastor usually raises his hands and blesses the people with a few special words.
I like to think of the first two signs in this account as two hands, raised for people to see, for a blessing for those who are willing to receive a special gift. An uplifted hand shows some authority; and, with that picture, some type of gift may be given through some well-chosen words. At the end of both signs, there are those with authority who believed. At the first, the ones who believed were his disciples (2:11); and, at the second, an ‘official’ believed, along with his household (4:53).
Some others with authority also believe along the way. In the section of the text, from John 7-8, Jesus is talking to ‘the Jews’, and, just a few verses earlier, the text says that, ‘[a]s he was saying these things, many believed in him (8:30).’ But this group is essentially also the one that tries to stone him! Jesus ends up doing another miracle in chapter 9, and, after many more words, the result of all of that is described in this way: “There was again a division among the Jews because of these words. Many of them said, ‘He has a demon, and is insane; why listen to him?’ Others said, ‘These are not the words of one who is oppressed by a demon. Can a demon open the eyes of the blind (10:19-21)?’”
After a couple signs come many words. And the words come, overflowing with blessings. And certainly those blessings can be refused; they are not forced upon people using powerful means. They are given to people as a gift, in a very loving way.
Blessings certainly have been refused by many in the past, by those who have forgotten that all their authority comes from the Author of heaven and earth. And, unfortunately, it looks like that trend is continuing in our present culture.
This Sunday is Pentecost Sunday, and it is also the start of the second half of the church year. But we STILL talk about Jesus. The 'main' text, though, is from Acts 2[:1-21]. There are many things one could focus upon in this section of scripture. What about a focus on sitting?
You might recall that those who are the focus of attention at the beginning of the chapter are described as 'sitting' (verse 2). Some people have argued that, because there are more than eleven languages listed in the text, the 'they' in the text must refer to more than the eleven apostles. But certainly one person can speak more than one language, especially if he or she did not have to learn it in the first place! So it seems that the 'they' of chapter two refers to the eleven apostles, since these are the very last two words of chapter one.
Sitting has, for centuries, been considered a position of authority. Kings would sit on their thrones. Other people would have to stand. This perspective almost immediately appears in the Gospel according to Luke. When Gabriel is talking to Zechariah, he says, 'I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you this good news (Luke 1:19).'
Most recently, sitting has been seen as a health hazard. How things can change! Too much sitting, especially with a poor posture, can be bad for the spine. Some have even compared it to smoking.
Even if the ones sitting were only the eleven, it is important to note that they were not the only things to be described as sitting. When the 'tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them' (verse 3), these tongues, in the original language, are described as sitting.
That does not mean that those tongues were sitting on the top of their heads. The picture in the original Small Catechism has the 'tongues as of fire' coming out of their mouths. We can never be sure of how something looked. I like that perspective though. It is as though the Lord takes over that part of the body. That is what a clerical is meant to point out--the white is near the throat and certainly not near the heart! This also reminds me of Dr. Luther's description of the church as a 'mouth house'.
The Lord has the authority. And authority is different than power. Authority has a clear source, an 'author'. The focus may be on power, only if it is needed, if his gifts are rejected and if there is a rebellion.
The apostles were, by the way, only doing what they were told. Some of the last words of Jesus were a command to 'stay' in Jerusalem (Luke 24:49). The word here literally means to sit.
Some of the other people whom we find sitting in the Gospel according to Luke have a different kind of authority. They like the idea of power. That is why the Church's focus is not simply on Jesus, but it is on the message, the message of his love. The focus is on his death and resurrection. And he showed himself alive to his followers in some very loving ways. In a sense, the Easter season continues.
For this last Sunday in the Easter Season, the text is always from John 17, what has been called Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer. This year, when we focus on the Gospel according to Luke, we look at the last part of that prayer [John 17:20-26].
Looking at the structure of various books and sections of the bible, I have sometimes noticed a structure which follows the layout of the tabernacle or temple. There is a noticeable increase in holiness when one moves onward, getting closer to the end of the text, an obvious highpoint, some sort of revelation about the one true God of the scriptures. The ‘highpoint’ in tabernacle or temple terms is what is called ‘the Holy of Holies’ or ‘the Most Holy Place’.
To give a brief example, at the beginning of Leviticus, the text usually says, ‘And the Lord spoke to Moses… (4:1).’ Later it transitions to ‘The Lord spoke to Moses and Aaron… (13:1).’ At the end of the book, the text finally says, ‘The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai… (25:1).’ Obviously much more could be said about that book and others.
What is interesting is that, in John 17, there are several times that Jesus uses the term ‘Father’ in the prayer. This title is not only at the very beginning. Jesus uses it in verses 1, 5, 11, 21, 24, and 25. Not only that, but in verse 11 Jesus calls him ‘Holy Father’, and, in verse 25, he calls him ‘Righteous Father’. This also seems to be a progression here. What is the point of calling the Father ‘righteous’?
The use of the two words in the rest of this gospel account seem to point out a noticeable pattern. The word ‘holy’ is certainly ascribed to God. In fact, the word is used five times in this account. The first, third, and fifth times reference the Holy Spirit (1:33, 14:26, and 20:22). The second time for the word references Jesus (6:69), and the fourth time, this chapter, references the Father. There is no doubt that the Trinity is holy.
The word righteous is used only two other times in this gospel account besides this chapter. And it never is in a title elsewhere in this account. In 5:30, Jesus says that his judgment is ‘righteous’ or ‘just’. In 7:24, Jesus says, ‘Do not judge by appearances, but judge with righteous (or just) judgment.’ Jesus seems, by his use of the word, to open it up for others.
Just how serious Jesus is about that may be seen in his previous use of the word ‘Father’, back in chapter 17, verse 24. In the original Greek, there is a big emphasis on ‘those you have given me’, that they ‘may be with me’. In the original language, the meaning does not change with the order of the words. What is up front is important. And those who are given to Jesus by the Father are important.
After Jesus uses the title ‘Righteous Father’, Jesus says that (v. 26), ‘I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known….’ This 'making known' goes in two different directions. It happened in the past, and it will happen in the future. And the purpose Jesus gives is wonderful: ‘…that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’
We do not go toward holiness. It has come toward us. And he brings his love with him. What more could we desire?