Who is Jesus? A study in the gospel of Luke
I. What did Jesus teach about God’s law? (Luke 10:25-37)
When we refer to God’s law, we are referring to God’s commands for how human beings should live. If God is a personal God, as the Bible declares Him to be, then he has a will. Our actions as human beings can either be consistent with his will or they can be contrary to his will. There are many expressions of God’s will throughout the Bible. Perhaps the most famous of these are the Ten Commandments given to Israel through Moses. But when Jesus was asked about the requirements of God’s law, how did he answer?
A. The demands of God’s law
1. When Jesus was asked what God demands of us, he always pointed back to God’s law as revealed in the Jewish Scriptures (Matt. 22:34-40, Mark. 12:29-31)
It’s important to recognize that Jesus always turned to Scripture. He viewed Scripture as God’s message to humanity. This is one of the reasons that Christians accept the Bible as God’s inspired Word; because Jesus trusted in and loved Scripture, Christians –as Christ’s disciples- should listen to, trust, and love Scripture. So when Jesus was asked about what God demanded of human beings, he didn’t point to our emotions or our innate sense of morality, even though these can both be consistent with God’s will. Instead, he pointed us to the divine standard expressed in Scripture.
2. Jesus taught that all of God’s law could be summarized in two commandments from the Old Testament: “love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength” (Deut. 6:5) and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18)
We might expect Jesus to begin reciting a long list of all the ethical commands in Scripture (of which the Jewish rabbis had identified hundreds). Or we might expect Jesus to refer to the Ten Commandments (which he occasionally does). But in this case and in other similar cases, Jesus says that all of God’s commandments hang on two very simple commands, both of which are quotations from the Old Testament: “Love God with all your heart” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.” This, says Jesus, is the essence of all God’s commandments. And of course, I think most people recognize that this really is the essence of what it means to live a righteous, good life. We recognize that love is somehow at the very heart of the universe. But now, let’s turn the parable of the good Samaritan and see how Jesus thought about what these two great commandments have to say about our lives.
B. The background of the parable of the Good Samaritan
The parable of the good Samaritan is probably one of the most famous of Jesus’ parables. Indeed, the phrase “good Samaritan” has entered our vocabulary to mean anyone who does out of their way to help another person in need. However, if we reduce the parable of the good Samaritan to a heartwarming moral story about how we ought to be nice to each other, I think we are seriously missing the point. To look at how Jesus intends this parable to function, I think we need to consider the context carefully.
1. A teacher of the law asked Jesus what we need to do to inherit eternal life
Our passage begins when a teacher of the law, a religious authority, stands up to test Jesus about what God requires us to do to go to heaven. Jesus answers as he often does that there are two great commandments: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus says that if we keep these commandments, God will take us to heaven.
2. The religious leaders’ question “who is my neighbor?” was prompted by a desire to justify, or vindicate, himself
However, the text says that the religious leader wanted to justify -or vindicate- himself. In other words, he wanted to show Jesus and everyone else that he had kept God’s law and therefore deserved to be taken to heaven. Since he asked Jesus only about the second commandment to love his neighbor, he seems to have assumed that he had already fulfilled the first command to love God with his whole heart. All he is asking for now is a bit of a clarification. After all, loving “one’s neighbor” is a bit vague. Surely, Jesus doesn’t expect us to love absolutely everyone! Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan in response to the lawyer’s request.
C. The response of the characters
1. The priest and the Levite were both respected religious figures. But the Samaritan was a foreigner, who would have been considered a heretic and an enemy by most 1st century Jewish people
2. Both of the religious figures in the parable turn away from the wounded man
3. The Samaritan has compassion on him and provides immediate medical assistance, transportation, short-term housing, and long-term financial care, all at his own expense
D. Jesus’ use of the parable
1. Jesus inverts the original question “who is my neighbor?” to “who was a neighbor to this man?”
Jesus’ use of the parable is absolutely shocking. The lawyer asked him the question “who is my neighbor?” in an attempt to restrict the generality of Jesus’ command. After all, Jesus can’t possibly be saying that absolutely everyone is my neighbor. But Jesus, in his response, inverts this question and asks “Who acted as a neighbor to the wounded man?” And of course, the answer is that the Samaritan acted as a neighbor to the wounded man. In other words, says Jesus, there is no limit to our obligation and no lines to be drawn around the circle of our obligation. The question is not “who is my neighbor” but “to whom am I acting as a neighbor?” We can act as a neighbor to anyone, just as the Samaritan did, even to a Jewish man who would have considered him an enemy.
2. Jesus returns to the original topic of the discussion and tells us that this is what the law requires: to go and do likewise
Jesus then commands this religious leader to “go and do likewise.” Recall the original topic of discussion: “What must we do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds that we are to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. And our neighbor is everyone, absolutely everyone, whom we meet on our path, whether he is our friend or our enemy, whether he is deserving or undeserving. If we would keep God’s commands and earn eternal life, we must love every human being created in God’s image as we love ourselves. If we do this, then we will live. If we fail to do this, we will be condemned. When we understand this parable in its context, it is not a sweet bromide about how we should be nice to each other. It is a shocking, holy, beautiful, and yet utterly terrifying description of what it looks like to live the life that God requires us to live.
3. The only possible response to an honest consideration of God’s law is to recognize our moral bankruptcy and seek God’s mercy (see Luke 18:9-14)
Recall that the teacher of the law, in this conversation, was trying to justify himself. He came to Jesus assuming that he was basically a righteous man who essentially deserved eternal life because of his obedience to God’s commands. In this parable, with a single blow, Jesus knocks all of our self-justifying, self-righteous posturing into a heap of rubble. Not a single person on the face of the earth loves their neighbor as themselves as Jesus describes it here. I certainly don’t. If we doubt this, I wonder what the homeless people living on the Green or the children living in the slums of Jakarta will have to say to us. These are our neighbors because we, like the Samaritan, have the capacity to help them. We have not done likewise and therefore we have not kept God’s law. Even more, right now we are only considering what Jesus called the second-greatest commandment, to love our neighbor. What of the greatest commandment, to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? Again, any honest reflection on this commandment will reveal that we have not even come close to approaching it. The only possible response to an honest reflection on God’s good and righteous law is a recognition of our utter failure. We are not law-keepers. It is not that God’s law is cruel and complicated and wrong. God’s law of love and compassion is beautiful and good and right. It is we who are wrong. We have flouted and broken God’s good law a thousand times over. If we are to “enter life”, we will do so not because we have in any way earned it or deserved it, but because of the sheer mercy of God who loves and rescues sinners.
II. Why did Jesus die? (Luke 22:14-20, 22:39-46; 23:26-46)
Once we recognize that all of us have broken God’s law, that none of us lives the life that God requires of us, the question is how God can forgive us. Is there any hope for evil people who have lived lives of selfishness, cruelty, indifference, and self-glorification? The answer of the Bible is yes. The story of the Bible is the story of God making a way for sinful people like us to be forgiven and reconciled to him. Jesus’ death is the climax of that story. In fact, if you consider the biographies of Jesus, between 25-50% of the gospels are devoted to the last week of Jesus’ life. The early Christians believed that what Jesus did on the cross was actually the very center of his mission. Let’s consider next what Jesus himself said about the significance of his death.
A. At the Last Supper, Jesus taught that he was dying on our behalf
1. The Passover meal was instituted in the Old Testament to symbolize the deliverance of the Israelites from Egypt
The Last Supper was actually a Jewish Seder, a symbolic meal that was commanded by God in the Old Testament to commemorate the night that God had led the people of Israel out of slavery in Egypt.
2. The Israelites were spared from death by sprinkling the blood of a lamb on their doorposts
Because the Egyptians had enslaved the Israelites, God sent plagues on them to punish them. Nonetheless, the king of Egypt refused to let the Israelites go. The last plague was the most terrible of all, as a sickness struck every firstborn child in Egypt, a punishment for the enslavement of the Israelites by the Egyptians and Pharoah’s attempt to slaughter the Jewish infants and commit genocide. However, when God spared the Israelites from the plague, He told them to kill a lamb and sprinkle its blood on the doorposts of their houses so that the plague would pass them by. Every year, from then on, the Israelites celebrated the Passover meal to remember their bondage in Egypt and God’s deliverance and Jewish people still celebrate this meal today. Every element of the Passover meal had symbolic significance.
3. Jesus reinterpreted the bread and the wine of the Passover meal as symbolizing his own body and blood, broken and poured out for us
When Jesus celebrated the last supper, he must have shocked the disciples by utterly reinterpreting the Passover meal. Instead of saying “this bread is the bread of affliction that our forefathers ate in Egypt”, he said “this is the bread of my affliction. This is my body, broken for you.” Instead of saying “this wine symbolizes the joy of freedom”, he said “This is my blood, which is poured out for you.” What Jesus was saying is shocking. He is claiming that the first Passover was actually only a picture of the real Passover that would happen at his death on the cross.
4. Elsewhere in the NT, Jesus himself is referred to as the lamb of God (Luke 22:7, 1 Cor. 5:7, John 1:29, John 1:36, Rev. 5:6)
Jesus is claiming that he himself is the true Passover lamb who is slain for the sins of the people. Just as the Israelites took shelter under the blood of the lamb to be spared from God’s justice, so Jesus’ followers can seek shelter under his blood which delivers us from the just death that we deserve. This is the very essence of Christianity; that Jesus came to save sinners by becoming our substitute. He died for us – on our behalf – to save us from the punishment that we deserved.
B. Jesus faced not only physical death on the cross, but the experience of God’s wrath
1. Jesus faced the prospect of the cross with terror and anguish
To see what Jesus faced in dying for our sins, we should consider his reaction to the prospect of going to the cross. Many Christians throughout the centuries have been killed for their faith. Yet many of them went to their deaths with peace and courage. For instance, when Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley were being burned at the stake for their faith, Latimer turned to Ridley and said: “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out.” Yet in contrast to this courage and faith, Jesus in Gethsemane is in utter anguish and despair. Luke reports that he actually sweat blood, a condition which occurs only in the extremes of physical shock.
2. He asked God to take ‘this cup’ away from him, but submitted to God’s will
Not only is Jesus in deep anguish, but he pleads with God the Father to take ‘this cup’ away from him. Far from facing his impending death with stoic indifference, he asks if there is any other way for salvation to be accomplished. What is Jesus so afraid of? After all, Jesus faced death several times during his ministry with complete poise and confidence.
3. The cup in the Old Testament was usually symbolic of God’s wrath and judgment against sin and evil (Is. 51:22-23, Jer. 25:15-16, Ps. 75:8)
We can understand Jesus’ suffering and terror only if we understand the symbolism of ‘the cup’. In the Old Testament, ‘the cup’ was a symbol of God’s wrath against sin and his punishment of evil. Thus, when we see Jesus begging God to take ‘the cup’ from him, we begin to understand what Jesus was going to bear on the cross: the wrath of God against sin. Indeed, in one of the prophesies about Jesus in the Old Testament, Isaiah relates how “he was pierced for our transgression, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.” The eternal Son of God, the Creator of the universe, was literally broken by the wrath of God against sin and evil so that the very thought of it in Gethsemane terrified him.
C. Jesus’ death is the ultimate indication of the depth of our sin
1. Jesus was mocked by everyone – the common people, the Jewish leaders, the Roman soldiers, even the other criminals who were crucified with him
2. ‘If we do such things when the tree is green, what will happen when it is dry?”
The cross also holds a mirror up to our sin. We might be tempted to think of our sin as a fairly minor problem, but we cannot do so if we think of the Cross. If it took the death of the perfect, sinless Son of God to pay for our sin, then our sin must be terrible beyond imagining. Not only that, but we see the universality of sin in the death of Jesus. People of all kinds mocked Jesus: Roman soldiers, Jewish religious leaders, criminals, officials, kings, commoners. None of us is free of the guilt of Jesus’ death because it was our sin that required it. Even more, we must consider what the evil in our hearts must be like if we can kill Jesus in the midst of history when we are relatively secure, safe, and free. If we can commit such an atrocity when we are in no real need, what kind of evil could we be driven to in the face of real need, real famine, real loss, real danger? We often think that we are morally superior to those who commit atrocities, but the truth is that so often only our relatively comfortable circumstances prevent us from the temptation to do the worst of deeds.
D. Jesus’ death is the only and ultimate hope for sinners
1. The thief on the cross recognizes that he deserves to die but that Jesus is innocent
2. He asks Jesus to remember him when Jesus is vindicated
3. Jesus promises that the thief will enter heaven with him
At the same time that the death of Jesus shows us the extreme depths of our sin and guilt, it also offers us our only real hope and the greatest hope of all. Throughout the crucifixion narrative, everyone mocks Jesus. No one believes that he is the Savior. Everyone laughs at him saying “You saved others, but you can’t save yourself. Come down from the cross and we will believe in you.” But one man recognizes Jesus’ Lordship. One of the criminals crucified with Jesus recognizes that he himself deserves to die, he is only getting what his deeds deserve, but Jesus is innocent. He recognizes that his sins deserve death, but that Jesus deserves to live. “I deserve to be here,” he thinks, “but Jesus does not.” More amazingly, he recognizes that Jesus is indeed the Messiah and will one day rule in God’s kingdom. And he turns to Jesus in faith and simply asks that Jesus will “remember him.” And Jesus gives the certain promise that this man will enter heaven along with Him.
The thief on the cross is the model of faith that we all need to have. He recognizes his own sinfulness. He doesn’t make excuses. He doesn’t rage against his sentence. He admits that he deserves his punishment. And yet he sees Jesus dying for sinners, an innocent man being condemned as a criminal, and puts his trust in Jesus’ ability to save. This is the good news of the gospel. It’s the great exchange: Jesus takes the punishment that we deserve so that we can have the blessing that he deserves. The moment that we put our trust in Jesus, the minute that we turn from our sins and trust in him for forgiveness, God forgives us. We are enemies of God one minute and reconciled and forgiven the next because of what Jesus did for us on the cross.
Suggested discussion questions:
1. Why did Jesus have to die? Couldn’t God just forgive us?
a. Lamp illustration. One of the illustrations that has helped me over the years comes from Tim Keller, who reflects on what forgiveness means. Imagine that you come into my house and break a lamp. There are two possible ways that I can react. First, I could demand that you pay for the lamp. I could hold your debt against you and sever all ties with you until you paid me back. The other option is that I could forgive you. But what does forgiveness mean? It means that I pay the debt. I absorb the cost of the lamp, either by buying a new one or by going without light in my house. But there is no scenario in which no one pays the debt. The same is true of our relationship with God. He can either hold us accountable for our sin, which would be completely just. Or, in his mercy, he can send Jesus Christ to pay for our debt on the cross.
b. Jesus says he has to die. Another point to consider is that Jesus himself says repeatedly that he has to die. He says that his blood is the blood of the new covenant poured out “for the forgiveness of sins.” He says that the Son of Man “must suffer and die.” He summarizes his entire mission by stating that “the Son of man came to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” If Jesus is trustworthy, then we can accept his teaching that his death on our behalf was absolutely necessary.
c. The suffering of Jesus. Finally, the sorrow of Jesus in Gethsemane and his agony on the cross make it clear that the cross was absolutely necessary. Can we really see Jesus weeping, and sweating blood, telling his disciples that he is “overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” and begging his father to “let this cup pass from him” and believe that the cross is unnecessary? Jesus himself declares that this is the only way that we can be forgiven. Imagine that a blind man is walking down the middle of the interstate. His friend shouts to him that he is in terrible danger, but the blind man laughs and doesn’t take him seriously. His friend yells and screams and pleads, but the blind man continues walking down the center of the road, completely unaware of the tractor trailer bearing down on him. Finally, his friend leaps over the guardrail, knocks the blind man out of the path of the truck, but is struck and killed in the process. Do we imagine that the blind man would still doubt that he was in real danger when he has just seen his friend violently killed to rescue him? In the same way, we may not see the danger that we’re in, but when we see God Himself being crucified, that alone should be enough to assure us that Jesus’ sacrifice was utterly necessary.
2. I don’t like the idea of a wrathful God. Isn’t God a God of love?
a. Biblical testimony. The Bible absolutely affirms that God is a God of love, but it also repeatedly affirms that God is a God of furious wrath against evil. There is no way to read the Bible honestly without recognizing that it teaches clearly that God hates evil and is furious at injustice. Jesus himself taught many times about the wrath of God against evil and never thought that this wrath was in any way a contradiction of God’s love. Jesus himself was not only infinitely tender, kind, and compassionate but also terrifying in his wrath against evil. If we accept Jesus’ testimony, then God is both a God of wrath and a God of love. Indeed, He is a God of wrath because He is a God of love.
b. Love necessitates wrath. Imagine that someone burst into the room and said to me: “Neil, your little one-year-old son Adrian has just been kidnapped and his being beaten and tortured by his captives.” What if I responded by smiling benignly and saying “That’s ok. I am an extremely loving person”? I’m sure that everyone would be appalled. If I truly love my son, then I am not only saddened when he is mistreated, I am also rightfully furious and angry against those who are hurting him. The Bible affirms that we are all God’s children (side note: in some ways, though not in others). But if that is the case, what does that imply for the wrath of God? The Bible affirms that God is all-knowing, that he is aware of every act, every thought, ever deed that is performed each moment all over the earth. How then does God feel when he sees AIDS orphans dying in the streets in Africa? How does he feel when he sees genocide or rape or murder happening every day all over the world? If God is a God of love, then he must be a God of wrath against evil. In a world like ours, a God who looked with indifference on the evil would not be a God worthy of worship and would not be a God of love.
c. The wrath of God magnifies the love of God. Finally, we need to recognize that the wrath of God actually magnifies the love of God. It is relatively easy to love people who are nice to us. But it is very hard to love people who hate you. The glory of God is that he loves his enemies. It is very easy to love when that love costs you nothing. A God without wrath is a God of cheap love. But the love of the true God is a costly love. According to the Bible, the only way for God to love us was to give up his beloved Son to torture and death. And He did it. It was love that led him to the cross to take the punishment that we deserve. The more we recognize the righteous wrath of God against our sin, the more we can praise the immeasurable love of God for sending Jesus to bear that wrath on our behalf.