Luke XXXIV: Lk. 9:18-27
In our text today, Jesus asks His disciples the most important question of all time: Who am I? Who is Jesus? The answer to this question is the center of the Christian faith.
Prayer Avails Much
One of the lessons of the book of Luke is that prayer matters. The book opens with the multitude of people praying while Zechariah ministers in the temple (Lk. 1:10), and the angel says that Elizabeth will bear a son because of their prayers (Lk. 1:13). Anna had waited in the temple for God’s Messiah for many years “with fasting and prayer night and day” (Lk. 2:37). When Jesus was baptized, it was while He was praying that the Holy Spirit descended upon Him (Lk. 3:21). Luke says that Jesus commonly withdrew to desolate places to pray (Lk. 5:16). He prayed all night just before He chose the twelve apostles (Lk. 6:12), and so it doesn’t seem incidental that Jesus is alone praying when He brings up the question of who He is (Lk. 9:18). One commentator suggested that Jesus was praying that they would give the right answer, and that doesn’t seem far off the mark. But surely His prayers were not unrelated to all the details of His ministry. He was praying not that they would have some kind of mystical zap moment; He was praying that they would hear His words and see the signs and understand and believe. It also doesn’t seem to be an accident that this recognition of who Jesus is comes in Luke’s gospel immediately after the breaking of bread for the five thousand (Lk. 9:16-17). Later in Luke’s gospel, after the resurrection two more disciples will recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread (Lk. 24:35).
The Christ of God
The word “Christ” means “anointed one,” and is the Greek word for “Messiah.” In the Old Testament the priests and kings and (some) prophets were anointed with oil for their ordination or coronation (Ex. 28:41, 1 Sam. 10:1, 1 Kgs. 5:16). God gave oil to make man’s face shine (Ps. 104:15), and it meant that God’s face was shining on this particular man for this particular mission (cf. Num. 6:24-25). In this sense, Elijah and John and “the other prophets” were “messiahs,” but importantly they pointed toward the greatest Messiah. Psalm 2 prophesied that ultimately God would give the ends of the earth to His Anointed to be His possession, and this prophecy, the apostles eventually proclaim has been fulfilled in Jesus (Acts 4:26). But the question at that moment was how this Christ would be given the ends of the earth for his possession. This is very likely why Jesus commanded the disciples not to say anything about this yet (Lk. 9:21). He knew that many would misunderstand what this title meant. Many would immediately think of all the miracles and wonders, and think that the plan was for Jesus to establish His kingdom by miraculous force. But Jesus immediately insists that being Messiah means that He will suffer many things, be rejected, and rise the third day (Lk. 9:22).
Taking Up Your Cross
Related to this misconception would be the corollary of what it meant to follow Jesus as the Messiah and what His Kingdom is like. If He takes control through force then His followers assume that they will join Him in that kind of conquest. But Jesus immediately explains that to follow Him means denying one’s self and taking up a cross (Lk. 9:23). The cross was a common form of execution in Roman society for slaves and criminals, and it was an intentionally slow, painful, and shameful way to die. Cicero is said to have described crucifixion as “a most cruel and disgusting punishment” and that “the very mention of the cross should be far removed not only from Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.” But the striking thing is that Jesus says that there really is no other way to save your life. He assumes that everyone wants to save their life, to have a meaningful life, to succeed, to matter. But He says that everyone who tries to save their lives will lose them; and only those who lose their lives for His sake will save them (Lk. 9:24). And Jesus explicitly sets this up as a math problem. Do the math: what profit is it if a man gains the whole world and loses himself (Lk. 9:25)? The answer is zero. Nothing. The clear implication in all of this is that losing anything or everything for the sake of Christ is worth it. If we are ashamed of Christ, we will lose everything (Lk. 9:26), but there is a surpassing, priceless glory in knowing Christ (Lk. 9:27).
The Cross Daily
One of the striking and unique things about what Jesus says here is that His followers must take up their cross daily (Lk. 9:23). Clearly this doesn’t mean literal crucifixion daily, so what does it mean? How do you take up your cross every day to follow Jesus? Paul uses this language in several places. He says, “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin… So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:8, 11). Again he says, “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:19-20). And a little later, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). And again, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14, cf. 1 Cor. 2:2).
Conclusion & Applications
Sometimes Christians are told that unless they sell everything and become a missionary or do something extreme, they are not really following Jesus. Sometimes it can seem like doing dishes and going to work are not heroic or sacrificial enough. At the very least, you might feel guilty for not doing more. But what it is that Jesus demands? Fundamentally, He wants us to know Him as the Christ, and to know Him as the Christ Crucified to save the world. He wants our hearts loyal to Him and loyal to His math of losing and gaining. But the point is not to lose life; the point is to lose everything that keeps us from His life. The point isn’t to give up nice stuff or good stuff. The point is to give up sin, to crucify the flesh and its passions, to live what your baptism means. When a woman kills the temptation to complain about doing the dishes again, she is crucifying the flesh, she is putting to death the old self, and boasting in the power of the cross. When a man kills the temptation to be lazy about disciplining his children or leading his family, he no longer lives, and now he only knows Christ and Christ crucified. For some, the thing getting between you and Jesus is your job, is your money, is your home, so lose them gladly for the glory of Christ. For others, Christ meets you right where you are, and you are called to lose your pride, your lust, your bitterness, your critical spirit so that you might find Christ and in Him all things. And this brings us back to prayer.