I caught the stomach flu this week.
It started early Thursday morning, and I was off my feet until Friday evening. And then there’s the recovery time. Usually with even a 24-hour bug you need a few days to get back to 100%. But on top of it all, we have a five-month-old baby with colic who woke up no fewer than five times a night—so I couldn’t recover.
On Saturday I was back to work, getting ready for today, but I found it really hard to concentrate. Preaching takes a lot out of me, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to recover fully before getting up here. I realized it’s hard to do your job, and to do it well, when you know you’ve got a hard time coming.
We’ve been in Luke 12-13 since the beginning of the school year, and we’ve seen Jesus continuing on his way toward Jerusalem—a journey he began all the way back in chapter 9. He’s taking his time getting there, because he’s regularly stopping on the way to teach and to heal the people who have come out to see him.
In making his way to Jerusalem, Jesus knew what he was in for: he wasn’t just on his way to a rough day. He was going to Jerusalem to die, and he knew it perfectly well. (He’s already said as much to his disciples.) And he knew what kind of a death he was going to suffer. He knew Isaiah’s prophecy about him in Isaiah 53.3-5, which said:
3 He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
4 Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
Every step he took towards Jerusalem was a step towards an agonizing and very slow death on the cross. Every step he took towards Jerusalem was a step towards his having to bear all of the wrath of God against the sins of his people.
As one commentator said,
“It would rightly be regarded as undue cruelty to a condemned criminal if each day he was moved a foot closer to the gallows. But this was Jesus’ daily experience as he deliberately chose to go to Jerusalem.”
This isn’t just the context of today’s passage, but of every passage we’ve seen since the beginning of September. But the context gives particular weight to what he says here.
If you remember, Jesus has just been speaking to the crowds, exhorting them to strive to enter through the narrow door (v. 24). He has told them that people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at table in the kingdom of God (v. 29).
All the while, Jesus’s enemies were paying no attention to what he was saying, but only trying to trap him, to trip him up in his mission. And that’s what we see beginning in v. 31. He’s not going to say a lot, but in these five verses, he’s going to send three different messages, in which he highlights his determination to accomplish his mission.
A Message to Herod (v. 31-32)
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.”
Now, we need to take a minute to remember what happened earlier in the story.
Herod was king over the Jews at this point, a puppet leader left in power by the Romans, who were occupying the territory. Herod had recently suffered a bit of political damage, after he executed John the Baptist.
If you remember, John had spoken out against the fact that Herod was sleeping with his brother’s wife, Herodias, and Herodias wanted John dead. (Herod was actually fond of John.) So she sent in her daughter to do a dance for Herod and enchant him, and Herod foolishly told her that anything she asked, he would give to her (Matthew 14.6-7). At her mother’s prompting, she asked for the head of John the Baptist. So Herod reluctantly had John executed.
This cost him a good deal of political capital with the people, because they loved John. So he didn’t want to make the same mistake twice: if possible, the people on the whole were even fonder of Jesus than they were of John.
So then why then would Herod want to kill him? And why would the Pharisees—the group of men who hated Jesus more than anyone—try to warn Jesus about it? They wanted him dead.
Most commetators agree that given these facts—that Herod wouldn’t have wanted to kill Jesus himself, and the Pharisees wouldn’t have wanted to stop it, and the way Jesus responds to them—we should understand that the Pharisees and Herod were working together here. It was an empty threat, meant to force Jesus to go somewhere else, where he wouldn’t be Herod’s problem anymore, and where he wouldn’t bother the Pharisees anymore.
They want Jesus out of their hair, so they cook up this threat and this warning to get him to go anywhere but Jerusalem, where Herod lived and where the Jewish temple stood.
But of course, Jesus won’t be deterred. And to show his determination, he takes his gloves off and comes out swinging.
32 And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course.”
To call someone a “fox” at that time was to suggest that the person was completely insignificant: it was an expression of complete and total contempt. Herod is the only person in the gospels whom we see Jesus treat with contempt. Later on, when he arrives in Jerusalem and stands before Herod to be questioned, Jesus doesn’t say a word to him—he won’t even stoop to address him. As Leon Morris said, “When Jesus has nothing to say to a man that man’s position is hopeless.”
And it shows in the answer he gives to the Pharisees. He says, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. In other words, “Nothing you can say or do will convince me to go anywhere but Jerusalem.” No attempts at manipulation, no scare tactics, will be successful here. He will do his work, he will accomplish his mission, and Herod’s attempts to stop him are as pitiful as a pebble thrown at a tank by a little child.
Why? Because going to Jerusalem, and being killed in Jerusalem (if Herod really had it in him, which we later see he doesn’t) was the plan all along. This isn’t just a question of Jesus’s determination; this is a matter of divine sovereignty. Jesus wasn’t just heading to Jerusalem despite threats to his life; he was going to Jerusalem to die.
And he would not be killed by the likes of Herod. Jesus is the one who would give his life; no human king had the power to kill him. As Jesus said in John 10.18:
18 No one takes [my life] from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.
A Message to the Pharisees (v. 33)
Technically, verse 33 is a continuation of what he was saying before; it’s part of what the Pharisees were to communicate to Herod. But in what he says here there is a biting rebuke for the Pharisees as well.
33 Nevertheless, I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following, for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’
In other words, Jerusalem poses a greater threat to a true prophet than any threat Herod can level at him.
It was a scathing insult, because from the time of King David, Jerusalem was the center of worship for the people of Israel. If the prophets in Israel had had a general headquarters, it would have been in Jerusalem.
See what he is doing? He’s highlighting their hypocrisy: Jerusalem, the city of God, is the one place where a true prophet of God is not safe.
A prophet’s vocation, in the Old Testament, was to communicate God’s message to God’s people. And since God’s people were so frequently unfaithful, much of the time the prophets’ messages were strong rebukes against the people, and warnings of punishment should they continue.
But at some point, the religious tradition of the Mosaic Law became more important to the people than actually listening to what God had to say. So God stopped sending prophets, at least until the arrival of John the Baptist and, to a much greater extent, Jesus himself.
Before John showed up, the religious authorities had not been bothered by prophets for quite some time—some pesky town crier telling them they’re doing it all wrong and need to change. Which is just the way they liked it. They were wary of John, but Herod took care of John for them. And now here comes this new prophet named Jesus.
Jesus posed a very real threat to their religion, their system of government, their values, their entire way of living—so the center of worship in Israel became the least safe place for him.
Why was Jesus such a threat? Because he is the prophet par excellence—he doesn’t just speak on behalf of God, he is God. When he speaks, every single word he utters is a word directly from the mouth of God to the people.
And in keeping with God’s promises, this prophet-King, this Messiah, would die in Jerusalem. It would be the ultimate unexpected victory; the Messiah would set the people free from their sin in the very place they came to make sacrifices to atone for that sin; and he would do it by becoming the perfect sacrifice in that place.
Now at this point, Jesus changes his focus—it’s as if he completely ignores the Pharisees from this point on, and takes a step back to look at the bigger picture. What concerns Jesus here is clearly not Herod, or the Pharisees, but Jerusalem itself: the focal point of Jewish worship. We mustn’t forget that Jesus was Jewish too: this was where he came with his family to worship when he was young. These were his people.
And we can see both his affection for the people on one side, and the seriousness of his resolve on the other, in the verses that follow.
A Message for Jerusalem (v. 34-35)
34 O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!
This image—of a mother bird caring for her young—is one of Scripture’s favorite images to describe the way God cares for those who belong to him. We see this especially often in the Psalms.
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings...
How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me,
for in you my soul takes refuge;
in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge,
till the storms of destruction pass by.
Let me dwell in your tent forever!
Let me take refuge under the shelter of your wings!
...for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
He will cover you with his pinions,
and under his wings you will find refuge...
I hope the image isn’t too abstract or culturally foreign for you to grasp the weight of it. The Creator of the universe, who has all the power over heaven and earth, against whom all of humanity has rebelled and who has the right and the authority to exercise judgment against all people, wants to be to his people as a mother is for her children.
The image speaks of intimate protection: of protection from the elements and from predators and from falling, and of the intimacy an infant feels when its mother holds it close to her breast.
This is the heart of God’s character; this is what he loves to do.
But Jesus says, You were not willing.
Some people were willing, of course, at least at certain times. But Jesus is looking ahead towards that moment in time in which he would be rejected by them all. Even his most trusted friends, his disciples, would run away in terror, leaving him completely alone—even though at Jesus’s side was the only place they were truly safe.
You can hear the longing in Jesus’s voice to protect his people from judgment: if you had been willing, in a MOMENT I would have run to you and protected you and cared for you and showed you my love… But you were not.
Now, let’s hit the Pause button for just a minute.
This obviously poses some problems, because if this is really what Jesus had wanted to do, couldn’t he have done it? Couldn’t he have done it, whether the people were willing or not? Couldn’t he have made the people willing?
The answer to both questions is yes. So why didn’t he?
The Bible gives us two answers: firstly, he didn’t impose his reign on the people of Israel because God always calls his people to an obedience which is free and willing.
We are all entirely responsible for our response to Christ’s invitation. God is sovereign over our response, absolutely: he sovereignly chooses whom he will save, and gives his Spirit to those he chooses, and it is only because of the Spirit’s work that we come to him (Ephesians 2.4-10).
At the same time, when someone rejects God, it is never simply mechanical. We are slaves to sin, absolutely: but we are willing slaves. No one rejects God because the devil made them do it. Any time any of us sin, in that moment, we are doing exactly what we want to do.
No one will be able to stand before God at the judgment and say that they were forced to reject him, because they will have to look at their disobedience and say in all honesty, I WANTED to do that. I wanted to pursue my own pleasure instead of your will for me. I wanted to be master of my own life. As we’ve repeated many times in the previous months, it’s not just about what we do, but about what we want, what we love.
And what is amazing about all of this is that the obedience to which Christ calls us isn’t first and foremost an obedience to rules. The call Jesus gives us in the gospel is not, Do what I say, and you can be saved. The call Jesus gives us in the gospel is, Come to me, and LET ME SAVE YOU. Let me gather you together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings. Let me be for you what you cannot be for yourself. Let me be perfect where you’re unable to. Let me obey in all the ways you can’t.
And even that, we are unwilling to do much of the time.
Which brings us to the Bible’s second answer to the question of why Jesus didn’t simply impose himself on Israel: because God’s glory is seen in his wrath, just as it is seen in his grace.
God’s wrath against our sin and rebellion is completely just, and shows his glory and his divine power, just as his grace does. Jesus could have forced the people into submission, but Paul says in Romans 9.22 that God judges those who reject him because he desires to show his wrath and to make known his power.
God’s ultimate desire is that his glory might be seen by all creation, and that glory is seen both in his grace towards undeserving sinners, and his wrath toward sinners who persist in rejecting him.
And that is why Jesus continues (v. 35):
35 Behold, your house is forsaken. And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’ ”
This last is a quote from Psalm 118.26. The people would quote it as well when Jesus finally arrived in Jerusalem—they would wave palm branches before him and celebrate his coming…mere days before they would cry out for his crucifixion.
Jesus’s verdict against Jerusalem is harsh and bitter and anguished. He loves these people, and clearly longs for them to know him as he is… But they were not willing.
Herod’s plans would be thwarted; the Pharisees would be unable to rid themselves of Jesus and the problems he caused them; and Jerusalem itself would soon reject the Messiah, and be rejected by him as a result.
Jesus would die there; and his death would mean life to the world. But only for the willing.
The Hero of Our Story
This is a dark passage. It’s a sobering passage.
It’s sobering to us in particular because we can see all of these tendencies in ourselves. We too have moments when we don’t want to get too close to Jesus, because we know he’s going to disrupt the train of our lives. He’s going to demand things of us we don’t want to give him. We are all too often unwilling to come to him and receive his grace, because that grace will necessarily demand a response, and we may not like the way he’ll call us to respond.
But I don’t think that feeling the weight of judgment is the only point, or even the main point, of this passage.
Because of the way Luke organizes his narrative.
He does it differently from, say, Matthew. We find v. 34-35—the lamentation for Jerusalem—quoted verbatim in Matthew 23. And yet Matthew does not include Jesus’s rebuke of Herod, or this particular rebuke of the Pharisees. (And he says a lot of other things to the Pharisees in that chapter that Luke leaves out here.)
We have to ask ourselves, Why did Luke choose to write his narrative as he did? Why did he choose to include this particular rebuke against Herod, and this particular taunting of the Pharisees, just before Jesus’s lament over Jerusalem?
There is one common element to all three messages here, which shows us the point Luke is trying to get across.
That common element is Jesus’s absolute determination to go to Jerusalem to be killed for the sins of his people.
He tells Herod that he would continue his course, and would not be deterred—no way Herod’s going to manipulate him into going anywhere else. He tells the Pharisees he would be killed in Jerusalem, and would not leave the road that led him there. And he tells Jerusalem that her inhabitants would soon be singing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” a very short time before turning on him to have him killed.
Jesus came to die. He knew he was meant to die in Jerusalem, the center of the religious life of his own people. And he put all of his determination into accomplishing his mission.
In this passage, Jesus proves himself to be the hero who puts all other heroes to shame.
Every hero story human beings have ever cooked up are faint echoes of this one. Whether we know it or not, this is why we love hero stories. This is why we love the story of Frodo accepting to take the One Ring to Mordor. This is why we love the story of Jean Valjean in Les Misérables, or Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. (And yes, it’s why we love Darth Vader’s final moments in Return of the Jedi.) Every story of a hero sacrificing him- or herself for others is, in one way or another, an echo of the story of our Hero: the hero Jesus was and is for us.
Knowing fully what he would have to endure—a brutally violent death at the hands of the Romans; the cosmic weight of God’s wrath against sin poured out on him—he remained determined in his objective. He would go to Jerusalem, and he would die there.
The question is, Why did he do it?
Well, we have a clue in the text itself.
V. 35, as we said, quotes Psalm 118:
And I tell you, you will not see me until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!’
That would soon happen in Jerusalem, when Jesus entered the city. But that’s not the only “coming” this verse foreshadows.
Psalm 118 is a psalm which celebrates the steadfast love of the Lord, and the salvation he gives to his people. And we know that his love and salvation are not limited to the psalmist’s time, or even to the span of Jesus’s own life on earth.
God’s love and salvation will be fully displayed and consummated in another coming.
Jesus will return to the earth one day, to gather his people to himself, and to renew the earth that has been corrupted by sin.
And on that day, all people—Jews and Gentiles alike—will understand who Jesus is and what he did. They will say, with all creation, Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!
You see, it’s no accident that when the authors of the Bible talk about heaven, one of the names they use for it is “the new Jerusalem.” For example, in Revelation 21.1-3, John describes heaven in this way:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
In other words, Jesus’s lamenting over Jerusalem here is not the end of the story.
He cries that he wants to gather the people of Jerusalem under his wings, and protect them, and love them…but they were not willing.
When we read this, we are meant to see ourselves there. We are Jerusalem. We too are unwilling. We too are unfaithful.
And yet, Jesus was solemnly resolute in his mission. He would die for unwilling people, in order to free them from their unwillingness. He would die for unwilling Jerusalem, in order to renew her.
And one day, the new Jerusalem will be established. God will bring down this new, perfect Jerusalem from heaven and establish it on earth. And what the old Jerusalem failed to be—the center of worship, God’s home on earth—the new Jerusalem will be.
The citizens of the new Jerusalem—all those who have faith in Jesus Christ who died for her—will not hear the same kind of lament Jesus gives in this passage, for they will be willing. And so he will gather his children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.
Brothers and sisters, in Jesus we find our shelter—the only true and lasting shelter we have. In Jesus we find life—the life he lived, he gives to us, for all eternity. In Jesus we find our hero—the one man who was able and willing to do what we couldn’t do, in order to save us.
So fix your eyes on your Savior. Fix your eyes on your hero. Fix your eyes on Jesus. Don’t allow yourselves to get distracted by the natural train of this life. Don’t allow yourselves to be distracted by the things you can see. Keep your eyes fixed on him, because having Jesus set firmly in your sights is the only way you will be able to live the life he calls you to live.
Just one example of many: fighting sin will never be effective if you’re entirely focused on your sin. You see your sin, you hate it, and you want to put it to death. So you think about the ways it tempts you, the ways it manipulates you and lies to you, and you take steps to protect yourself from that temptation.
That’s all good; you should do that.
But it will not work in the long term if you have nothing else to replace the sin you’re trying to put to death. You will never find the strength to persevere in obedience if you’re not looking at the One who was already perfectly obedient for you. If you don’t learn to love him more than your sin, that sin will soon become irresistible once again.
Keep your eyes fixed on your hero, and follow hard after him.
And whether you’re a believer or not this morning: don’t be like the old Jerusalem.
Be WILLING. When Jesus invites you to come to him, come to him. When he offers you his grace, take it. Let him protect you. Let him guard you. Let him care for you. Let him be for you everything you can’t be for yourself.
It will certainly demand sacrifice, yes—but what you gain in him is infinitely more than the pitiful things you’ll give up. See his resolve to save you, and remember that Jesus never resolved to do anything that wasn’t entirely and wonderfully worth it.
Be willing. Come to him, and let him save you, and let him keep you, until he returns—until that day when you, and I, and all of creation, will sing, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”