Of mission and swords
I often read the story in Luke 9 and 10, when Jesus told His disciples to take nothing with them for their missionary journeys. I understood His reasons for doing so. But in Luke 22, He told them that the time had come for them to take with them everything they would need, including swords. This disturbed me, but I never investigated it deeply. My commentaries informed me that the conversation is “difficult to interpret,”1 or that it is suspected of not being genuine Lukan writing,2 or that Jesus was preparing the disciples “to face future realities” where they would need to fend for themselves.3
Such explanations were anything but satisfying. Then one evening, while I was reading the story with my family, everything suddenly fell into place. My boys looked bewildered as I laughed aloud, delighted by clarity that could not be attributed to anything but the Spirit working through the plain Word of God. What was I shown that the commentaries had missed?
Take nothing with you
The twelve disciples had been with Jesus for many months. They had made great strides in their understanding of how Jesus conducted His ministry because they had watched Him, listened to Him, and been instructed and sometimes corrected by Him. They had gained confidence in ministering together with Him and were becoming proficient in that work. But they were lacking something. Ellen White mentions that they needed the experience of working alone, without Jesus’ physical presence with them.4
So one day Jesus called them together to give them an assignment with specific instructions. “And He called the twelve together, and gave them power and authority over all the demons and to heal diseases. And He sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to perform healing. And He said to them, ‘Take nothing for your journey, neither a staff, nor a bag, nor bread, nor money; and do not even have two tunics a piece.’ ” (Luke 9:1–3, NASB).
In college I took art classes where, for certain projects, the instructor let his students create whatever we chose, while on other projects he would severely restrict us in what we were allowed to create. For instance, he might assign a project using only a single color. His goal was to force us to be creative in different ways. Narrow options force a person to think differently.
When Jesus told His disciples to go out preaching and healing but to take nothing with them on the journey, He intended for them to think differently about what they were doing and how they were doing it. His purpose was to teach them that when doing His business, they could and should rely upon God to meet their needs, not on themselves.
Later, in Luke 10, Jesus sent 72 disciples with the same instructions. They obeyed and were thrilled that in Jesus’ name even demons submitted to them. They returned with no complaints of hunger, no stories of shivering through the night, and no blistered feet for want of extra sandals. Most of us as pastors would be hard pressed to name a single dramatic instance of divine care of the sort the disciples must have experienced. Why not? I suggest two reasons.
Taking ministry seriously
The first reason may be that we are not entirely serious about our Father’s business. When the disciples embarked on their bare-bones missionary journey, it meant that they carried nothing to distract their minds from the task at hand, focusing instead on God, their only source of help.
They had no phone to sidetrack them, no entertainment device to amuse them, no air-conditioning to make it more comfortable to stay home than to go out, no car radio to direct their minds to music or politics or to the latest news, and no TV or novel to help them escape the stresses of life. Therefore, they could more easily take their mission seriously.
Ancient Israel serves as an example of not taking mission seriously enough. They had been raised up by God for the specific purpose of demonstrating what it means to live faithfully to the God of heaven. God promised His extravagant blessing if Israel would do this work. His plan was for the nations of the world to recognize that Israel possessed some- thing better and therefore be drawn to the true God through them.
King David catapulted Israel onto the edges of the world stage. Solomon, the son of David, had his mission laid out clearly for him. Solomon’s kingdom was the one to which the nations would flock to learn the secret of Israel’s prosperity.
To aid in this task, God gave Solomon everything he needed. God did not tell Solomon to take nothing with him for the journey. In fact, He loaded Solomon with blessings at the beginning of the journey.
Unfortunately, Solomon allowed those blessings to distract him from the mission. He began to value his comforts, pleasures, and reputation too much.
Ultimately, Solomon, and Israel with him, failed to fulfill the mission God had given them because they became distracted.
God would have preferred for His people to have accomplished the mission while living in peace and prosperity, but they could not handle it. That is why a thousand years later, Jesus Christ arrived in Israel with the same mission. But this time the Son of David did not come with great power and prosperity. He came with nothing at all for His journey except total dependence upon His Father. With Jesus Christ, gone were the things that so easily distract God’s people. Instead, they were given nothing to take with them on the journey except their faith in God’s provision.
Therefore, Jesus’ disciples had every incentive to care deeply about the task they had been given, not merely for altruistic reasons but also in their own self-interest. The only way they could count on God to provide food, shelter, and safety, not to mention success, was if they knew that they were being completely obedient to the Spirit’s leading. They recognized instinctively that straying from the path laid out before them would mean straying from the path of safety. If they drifted from the task at hand, they could not count on God’s blessing. This was not because God would strike them with punishments but because He could not give them what He had promised if they did not give Him what they had promised. That is the way covenants work.
While pastoring, I once saw this contrast in action. When we ran a series of meetings in Moscow, Russia, we did it on a shoestring budget. We had little to take with us on the journey. But the church members were enthusiastic, and the people from the surrounding community responded. Later, I ran a similar series in the United States, which was much more strongly funded and promoted. But the church members hardly attended, and the community members responded the same way. We may be tempted to cite the dissimilarities between countries, but I have noticed striking differences in the success of meetings even within the same church district, the only variation being the commitment of the members.
This is the first reason that we may not see the dramatic experiences that the disciples saw. We are too often distracted from our Father’s business with the business of our own creation.
Going it alone
The second reason we may not have such dramatic experiences is that when we do take on our Father’s business, we prepare as though we must accomplish the mission alone.
Gideon is a prime illustration. God asked Gideon to drive the Midianites out of Israel, but Gideon was afraid. After several signs, Gideon finally acknowledged that God was indeed behind the mission, and then he spared no effort in preparation. He called everyone he could find to join the army.
This strategy, commendable in other Bible stories, was not commendable this time. God told Gideon to take practically nothing with him on this journey. He cut Gideon’s already outnumbered fighting force to a mere 300 men. That way, God told him, no one would have any choice but to rely only on God.
I have noticed a similar phenomenon with my preaching. Countless times I have felt that I was thoroughly prepared for a sermon and presented it well but received minimal positive responses. Then there were times when I was less than prepared and felt I butchered the delivery yet received enthusiastic response. I have no choice but to humbly credit the Holy Spirit with working where I am inadequate. We say the right words about relying on the Spirit, but we still act as though we must work alone.
Buy a sword
And if we insist on working alone, God politely steps out of the way and lets us try. This brings us to the reason Jesus told His disciples to take provisions with them in Luke 22.
“And He said to them, ‘When I sent you out without money belt and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?’ They said, ‘No, nothing.’ And He said to them, ‘But now, whoever has a money belt is to take it along, likewise also a bag, and whoever has no sword is to sell his coat and buy one. For I tell you that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, “And He was numbered with transgressors”; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment.’ They said, ‘Lord, look, here are two swords.’ And He said to them, ‘It is enough’ ” (Luke 22:35–38, NASB).
Why would Jesus tell His disciples to take nothing with them earlier but now tell them the opposite? Jesus spoke these words just before Gethsemane when, according to prophecy, He knew His disciples would desert Him. On previous journeys He had restricted their packing because they were going forth in the power of their faith in Jesus. But now, as Jesus prepared to face the cross, the journey the disciples would soon take was a journey of abandoning Jesus. So Jesus was preparing them for that sort of a journey. If the disciples had no intention of trusting Him to supply their needs, they needed to prepare for life alone. In that case, they ought to take money for food; a bag for belongings; a coat to keep warm; and, more important than even a coat, a sword for self-defense.
Not that these precautions would really help them. When Jesus told His disciples to prepare for this journey by taking money and sword, He was reproving them for their lack of faith. But the disciples did not understand the irony, which is why they delightedly informed Jesus that they already had two swords.
I imagine Jesus’ face falling at their announcement. He knew these things must be, so He said, “ ‘It is enough.’ ” But what they had just proudly told Him, without realizing it, was that they were already prepared to abandon Him. They still had not learned the lessons of faith that their earlier journeys had proven to them.
Fortunately, Jesus also knew that His Father would not abandon His disciples of little faith. He knew that the event of His death would be a turning point for them. So while saddened by their lack of trust, He was far from losing hope for them.
So it is with us today. We disappoint Jesus by our insistence on self-reliance, but He has not given up hope. He will bring us again and again into dire straits where our preparations will be insufficient. He hopes that we will recognize the impossibility of going it alone. He hopes that we will surrender to His care and protection, and in that state of mind that we will focus entirely on the mission that He has given us to do.
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1 Walter L. Liefeld and David W. Pao, “Luke,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, rev. ed., ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, vol. 10, Luke–Acts (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 318.
2 John Nolland, Luke 18:35–24:53, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 35C (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1993), 1075.
3 Darrell L. Bock, “Luke,” NIV Application Commentary, ed. Terry C. Muck (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996), 560.
4 Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1940), 349.