Jesus founded his Church on prayer, discipleship, and a holistic gospel ministry rooted in him—these are the foundation of spiritual blessing for individuals, communities, and the world; therefore we will only find blessing for ourselves and others as we pray, become disciples, and minister as this “New Israel.”
Introduction – I’m ashamed to admit it. But it’s true. Years ago I was spending the day with my pastor, and at one point he asked me, “What do you want out of life?” Based on the flow of the conversation, he probably expected me to say something like “I want to be married, have a family, a good job, a nice house, go to a friendly church, be happy.” I knew that is what he expected to hear, so instead I went for a shock-and-awe effect, seizing the moment to share what I really wanted. My answer? I deliberately looked straight into his eyes and declared with as much hushed melo-drama as I could muster, “I want to be great!” Now, I meant that I want to be great for the Lord (and for others). At least that is what I told myself to make me feel good. But looking back on that chapter in my life, I must have sounded a lot like some of Jesus’ puffed-up disciples seeking glory for themselves. My understanding of greatness in God’s kingdom was not shaped by Jesus at all. In my heart I wanted greatness mostly for my own happiness. That is where I looked for blessing on my life. The desire for greatness to make me happy still lurks in my heart. To what do you look for happiness? What would make you feel blessed?
We all as individuals want to succeed, to “live out our dream.” But we also feel the need to be part of something important and bigger than us, be part of the solution instead of the problem, participate in making the world a better place. In short, we want everyone (including ourselves) to be blessed. But what happens when being a part of something bigger than you seems to interfere with your own personal happiness? Who do you usually favor–yourself or others? All of us struggle to escape this selfishness trap.
I. The Power of Jesus
A. Fueled by prayer (v. 12)
According to the gospels, Jesus always spent the night in prayer with God before an important decision or event in his life (cf. Lk 22:39-46). (The early church also followed this pattern as recorded in Acts.) In this passage, Jesus knew he would be choosing the 12 men from his band of followers (disciples) to be specially commissioned as his apostles. This was a vitally important decision because the apostles would carry Jesus’ mission forward after he ascended to heaven. Luke is the only gospel writer who records Jesus praying all night before choosing them. The omission of this detail from Matthew and Mark emphasizes the key theme of prayer in Luke’s gospel. Luke records Jesus praying at every major point in his life: baptism (3:21), choosing the apostles (6:12), Peter’s confession of faith (9:18-20), the transfiguration (9:28-29), teaching the Lord’s Prayer (11:1-4), before Peter’s de-confession (22:32, 40, 46). What is the lesson for us? As Jesus prayed, his disciples also ought to live a life of prayer. Surely there is a derivative application for us regarding prayer before important decisions or events. Even the all-wise Jesus knew he was so dependent on his heavenly Father that he had to pray for wisdom, discernment, and direction.
Think back on the major decisions and events of your life. With which acquaintances would you pursue friendship? Where would you go to college? Which major would you choose? Which job would you take? Whom would you ask to marry? Whom would you say “yes” to marry? Which church family would you join with and serve within? Where will you live? For every important choice that set you on a particular path and limited your future choices, did you seek the wisdom of God through prayer? How earnestly did you pray? How often? How long? This is not meant to be an exercise in guilt, but in diagnosis to identify whether your trust is in the Lord or your own ability to make good decisions. Do you have a history of being self-consciously dependent on the Lord, or of being independent when it comes to important personal matters, matters that will shape your life? Remember, your life is not your own. You belong to God. So glorify God with your life by seeking his wisdom, his presence, his direction, his counsel, his plan for you—through prayer. John Piper said, “The key to praying with power is to become the kind of persons who do not use God for our ends but are utterly devoted to being used for His ends.”
B. Used for ministry (vv. 17-19)
The word “ministry” has been misapplied by many in the church. You’ve heard pastors use it as a synonym for “career.” “My ministry is really taking off!” Or “I’ve decided to quit my job and enter the ministry.” You’ve heard Christians use it as a synonym for “hobby.” “When I’m not working, eating, or sleeping, I’m always doing ministry.” This is not how Jesus treated ministry. He was true to the meaning of the word which is “service.” Jesus served others because he was the Servant Lord.
1. These summary-statement verses set the scene for Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain. They demonstrate Jesus’ power and compassion to people as he was preparing to teach them that “ministry” is essentially Christian discipleship. His ministry modeled for disciples that their job was to share the love, power, and compassion of Jesus to the whole world. Believing the gospel of Jesus and being his disciple must include care for the needy in Jesus’ name. Christians owe this kind of ministry to their neighbor. Care for the needy and preaching the gospel were the two great acts that dominated Jesus’ time. Both were important to him, and he neglected neither.
2. The whole multitude—“all the crowd”—sought Jesus in order to touch him because the Holy Spirit power came out of him that healed them all. The only thing people needed was to reach out and touch him. Jesus didn’t even need to act for people to be healed! Merely allowing himself to be touched was enough. But notice that Jesus is not passively compassionate. His care for the needy is tailored to the individual’s specific need. We know that Jesus, with his divine power, could have healed everyone in the crowd at once. But Jesus chose a different practice of healing the sick and those troubled by demons. As a doctor of both body and soul, he loved by giving individual attention to each patient. These people were not potential recruits to lure; they were people who needed his loving touch.
3. Matthew Henry speculates that perhaps not all in the crowd who sought to touch Jesus were sick or troubled by demons. Perhaps some were well enough (without any particular disease or ailment), but the power that came out of Jesus upon touching him brought them bodily health and vigor? Whether this is the case or not, it is still true that Jesus gives new life to those who seek him, and that new life brings a zeal and zest for life that cannot be obtained from any other. The power that Jesus wields to heal is the same power that invigorates the weary, brings joy to the sorrowful, brings hope to the hopeless, brings life to the dead, brings forgiveness to the sinner. Whether you are sick in body, reasonably healthy, or fit as an athlete, you still need Jesus. So seek him. Reach out to him. Touch him by faith to find life in him.
II. Attracted the People of Jesus
Jesus is the Apostle of God, the “sent one” of God who chose twelve men to be his official emissaries of the kingdom of God. They are his apostles. This passage invites us to ask the questions “What is a disciple of Jesus?” and “What is an apostle?” as we prepare ourselves for Jesus’ Sermon on the Plain.
A. Disciples (vv. 13, 17-19)
Disciples are chosen to be learners, even followers, in the school of Christ. More than pupil-teacher is implied in the disciple-master relationship. A close personal fellowship is necessary. The band of disciples comprised those who regularly followed Jesus wherever he went, and were committed to his teaching. Moreover, a disciple is committed to becoming like his teacher (Lk 6:40). John MacArthur put it this way: “The true convert is a disciple, a person who has accepted and submitted himself to Jesus Christ, whatever that may mean or demand. The truly converted person is filled with the Holy Spirit and given a new nature that yearns to obey and worship the Lord who has saved him. Even when he is disobedient, he knows he is living against the grain of his new nature, which is to honor and please the Lord. He loves righteousness and hates sin, including his own.”
B. Apostles (vv. 13-16)
1. Apostles are literally “sent ones”— ambassadors sent with the authority of the sender (Lk 9:1-2; Acts 1:1-8; cf. 2 Cor 5:19-20). Jesus appointed apostles as messengers in his kingdom service. Jesus chose from his disciples 12 men to have this special role in the New Israel (notice the allusion to the 12 tribes of Israel; cf. Lk 22:28-30). The Jews of Jesus’ day comprised an incomplete subset of the original 12 tribes of Israel. Only the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and half of Levi remained. Thus the restoration of all 12 tribes of Israel would only occur in the messianic age (Ezek 37:15-28). When Jesus named 12 men as apostles, this symbolic action “restored” Israel, making God’s people whole again. Tucked away in this passage is a monumental event: Jesus began building the eschatological Israel of the messianic age! The New Israel is a continuation, in a new form, of the kingdom of God that spans the ages from creation to the new creation (cf. Mt 21:43; 1 Pet 2:9; Rev 21:12, 14).
2. Lists of the 12 disciples/apostles are also found in Mt 10:2-4; Mk 3:16-19; Acts 1:13. Peter is always listed first, and Judas Iscariot is always last. They are usually called “the disciples” or “the Twelve” in the gospels, and “the apostles” in Acts. These men were the inner circle of Jesus. They were the men who built the New Testament Church—with Jesus as the chief cornerstone. At the time Jesus appointed them apostles they were just ordinary men. They were not religious scholars or men particularly known for their holiness. What is the lesson? God calls ordinary people—the nobodies of this world—to build his Church (1 Cor 1:26-29). Why? So that God alone receives the glory for the work of his Church. J.C. Ryle noted, “Not one of them, so far as we can see from the New Testament, was great, or rich, or noble, or highly connected. Not one was a Pharisee, or Scribe, or Priest, or Ruler, or Elder among the people…There is something deeply instructive in the fact which is now before us. It shows us that our Lord Jesus Christ’s kingdom was entirely independent of help from this world. His Church was not built by might, or by power, but by the Spirit of the living God (Zech 4:6). It supplies us with an unanswerable proof of the divine origin of Christianity.”
3. While ordinary in themselves, Jesus made them into something great! This is a tremendous comfort for weary believers. Sermons about discipleship and the Christian life can often feel like pep talks. “Try harder! Keep going! You can do it!” But Jesus calls nobodies and weaklings to be his disciples. It is not your strength and perseverance that makes you a Christian. Jesus made that clear by the kinds of men he called as apostles. Who would have chosen them? Only God could make something great of those ordinary people. Exactly. God is the power of weary believers. He is able to make the ordinary great.
The Lord’s apostles were directly or indirectly responsible for most (if not all) of the NT books. Peter wrote the epistles 1 and 2 Peter, and probably served as Mark’s primary source for his gospel. John wrote the gospel of John, the epistles 1, 2, and 3 John, and the book of Revelation. Matthew wrote the gospel of Matthew. Paul, the apostle appointed by Jesus as one “untimely born,” wrote the epistles of Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, 1 and 2 Timothy, Titus, and Philemon. The gospel of Luke and the book of Acts were written by Luke the physician, a close ministry associate of Paul. Jesus’ half-brothers James and Jude wrote the epistles of the same names. (Only the authorship of Hebrews remains uncertain, but the early Church recognized it as authoritative, apostolic, and God-inspired.) This is why the so-called “lost books of the Bible” were not included in the canon of Scripture. Jesus only entrusted apostles whom he personally called to share and codify his teaching. All others who came after the apostles and claimed their authority, or those who pretended to be authentic apostles were dismissed. Their teaching and writings were not received by the churches as apostolic and therefore not authoritative.
4. But the greatness of the apostles is not the point. It is Jesus’ greatness that is magnified. He took 12 ordinary men, with all their sin, faults, and quirks, who were very different (even opposite!) ideologically, temperamentally, and educationally and made them into one unified family. Jesus is glorified in his power to draw men, in his wisdom in choosing men, and in his love in pouring his life into these men.
III. To Live for Jesus
A. The Life of Discipleship (vv. 18-19)
The people came to Jesus for three reasons: to hear him teach, to be healed of their diseases, and for exorcism of demons. Compared to the abbreviated parallel account in Mark, Luke emphasized that the crowd had come to hear Jesus teach (Mark 3:8 says the crowd came to hear about what Jesus did). This orients us to prepare our hearts to hear Jesus’ teaching on discipleship. The Sermon on the Plain is an important message for disciples. Listen up and heed the Master! It is true that Luke also mentions Jesus’ healing and power. But notice that the Sermon on the Plain (instead of a healing story) follows this passage. This encourages disciples to major on Jesus’ teaching and minor on healing (Mt 6:33).
B. The Life of Blessing (Lk 6:20-49)
The Sermon on the Plain is a lesson on discipleship in the school of Jesus. Jesus will teach in the Beatitudes that following him is a life of blessing, but following the way of the world is a cursed life. But these blessings and curses do not work out in this life the way you would expect. To live a life of blessing, a disciple must love sacrificially—even loving your enemy! The cost of discipleship is steep. You must be merciful at your own expense—even when it hurts your personal sense of justice. You must maximize your estimation of your own sin, and minimize your estimation of a fellow disciple’s sin. You must regard his sin as a speck and yours a log! You must judge your heart by your words and actions, not merely by your good intentions. A disciple must not only claim allegiance to Jesus, but must also obey him. A life of blessing rests on the foundation of discipleship lived at Jesus’ feet and alongside other disciples.
Conclusion – The appointment of the apostles and Jesus’ subsequent Sermon on the Plain contrast the way of discipleship with the way of opposition modeled by the Pharisees quarreling with Jesus about keeping the Sabbath. By way of stark contrast, this brief passage ties what came before with what comes next. The larger context of what happened before (Lk 5:1-6:16) now informs the commissioning of the apostles. Jesus came to seek and save the lost. Some of the first people Jesus sought became disciples and shortly thereafter apostles. Within this larger story Jesus is calling, miraculously healing, and forgiving sin. Luke is showing us that Jesus is the Christ: Savior, Lord, and God. Who else has the power to heal, forgive sin, or demand discipleship? Looking backward, we hear the memorable words of Jesus that are simple yet profound. “From now on you will be catching men” (Lk 5:10). “Be clean” (Lk 5:13). “Your sins are forgiven” (Lk 5:20). “Follow me” (Lk 5:27). “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:32). “The Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath” (Lk 6:5). Do you want to be blessed by God? Do you want others to be blessed? Do you want to escape the selfishness trap, of seeking happiness at the expense of others? Then follow Jesus. Discipleship in the school of Christ is the way out of selfishness and into a life of blessing. Unless you believe in him, trust in him, pray to him, listen to him, obey him, serve him, respond to his call on your life to be a disciple, then you will always choose personal happiness over being a part of something bigger than you. And ironically, you will end up unhappy. C.S. Lewis paraphrased Jesus’ famous “seek ye first” saying when he wrote, “Aim at heaven and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth and you get neither.” Only disciples, relying the power of the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus, will find personal blessing and also find their part in the biggest thing of all—the people of God in the kingdom of God—the New Israel.