majesty in the valley
The French love going on vacation. I do too. They’re great: you go someplace sunny (why anyone would decide to go on vacation to somewhere cold, I’ll never understand), you relax, you read, you enjoy your family…
But it’s a double-edged sword, because at some point, you have to come home. And it’s depressing to come home. It’s depressing to leave the sun and come back to the gray and the rain and the cold. It’s depressing to find yourself faced once again with the ordinary struggles you were able to get away from for that short amount of time.
That’s the image I think of when I think of this passage.
Last week we saw Jesus transfigured on the mountain. It was an unparalleled vision of the glory of Christ. But eventually, of course, Jesus and the disciples had to come down. And the first thing they see after coming down from this amazing encounter with God on the mountain is exactly the kind of thing they’d been seeing before Jesus sent them out: a demon making someone suffer, and the disciples’ being unable to help.
Frustration (v. 37-43)
Remember last week? Jesus is on the mountain; he is transfigured before the disciples; and Moses and Elijah appear, speaking to him. Luke tells us in v. 31 that they spoke to Jesus of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. We understand, obviously, that they were speaking to him about everything he was about to suffer—his arrest, his beating, brutal death (as well as his resurrection and ascension).
But there’s more going on than just that: that experience on the mountain was the beginning of the end of his earthly ministry. He was about to depart. Things—at least in this section of the story—were coming to a close. And this part of the story would be characterized by increasing tension and pain for Jesus.
We see that tension begin the moment he comes down off the mountain with Peter, James and John.
37 On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. 38 And behold, a man from the crowd cried out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. 39 And behold, a spirit seizes him, and he suddenly cries out. It convulses him so that he foams at the mouth, and shatters him, and will hardly leave him. 40 And I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.”
If you’ve ever seen The Exorcist, you’ll recognize what we see here: it’s remarkably similar. A demon has taken possession of this boy; he takes control of his body and brutally tortures him with convulsions. It’s hard to imagine something more painful for a parent to watch.
Jesus has dealt with demons before, hasn’t he? In fact, in chapter 8, just a few verses earlier, Jesus cast out an entire legion of demons from a man: and he did it casually, like it was the easiest thing in the world for him.
But in this case, his reaction is different. He does not react with calm assurance, but rather with frustration. V. 41:
41 Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you?”
It’s really hard to know what to do with this. We’re not used to seeing Jesus like this: this is the kind of reaction you get from an exhausted mother who has to say for the thousandth time to her child, “How hard is it to wipe your nose with a tissue instead of your sleeve?” It doesn’t seem to be in keeping with Jesus’s stoic assurance.
And the reason this disarms us is because much of what we understand about Jesus has come from paintings and our own imagination rather than the Bible. Since we know he is without sin, it changes the way we see his humanity: we make him something other than human instead of more than human. But in reality, Jesus was no less human than we are: he is more than human but not less.
And the Bible never shies away from Jesus’s humanity. He was without sin, but still, in the Bible we see him angry, we see him distressed, we see him afraid, we see him tired, we see him hungry, we see him thirsty. And in the end, we see him die. This is one of those moments when his humanity is particularly evident.
The question is, why?
Faithless generation (v. 41-42)
The father comes to Jesus and says he asked the disciples to cast out the demon, but they couldn’t. Now, if you remember, this is strange. At the beginning of this very chapter (v. 1), Luke tells us that Jesus called the twelve together and gave them power and authority over all demons.
In other words, they should have been able to do this. They have everything they need! And the fact that they are suddenly unable to do what he had just recently given them authority to do frustrates Jesus.
He says (v. 41 again),
41 Jesus answered, “O faithless and twisted generation, how long am I to be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”
There’s the answer to his frustration: the “generation” in front of him is “faithless” and “twisted.” They did not have faith, and their lack of faith twisted them.
The people swarm to him, as usual, to see the show. But he knows their hearts: they have no real faith that he is who he says he is, or that he will do all he says he will do. They want to see a spectacle, not a Messiah. The only person in the crowd who visibly manifests faith in Jesus is the father. (And Jesus approves of him by telling him to bring his son to him.)
In the same way—and perhaps most crushingly—the disciples themselves show their lack of faith by the fact that they were unable to do what he had given them power to do. Which was certainly the biggest frustration of all.
Jesus had given the disciples a real, tangible power from God. They had been given authority to heal, authority to cast out demons. And they did it: they went out and they healed people and cast out demons. But now, in a ridiculously short amount of time, they seemed to have lost that power.
Why? Jesus tells us why: he calls them faithless. As one commentator put it, “they had subtly moved from trust in God to faith in the process, which is to say faith in themselves.”
This happens to us all the time. We are told that our faith in Christ has reconciled us to God and set us free from the power of sin. We are told that Jesus has freed us from bondage to sin, so that sin no longer has any power over us: we no longer have to obey, but we can say no, and reject that sin! That’s great news.
But what do we do? We hear we’ve been set free from sin, and we leave thinking, I have the power to say no, rather than thinking, HE has the power to help me say no. So what do we do? When temptation comes, we try really hard. We grit our teeth and flex our muscles…and we fail. We might manage for a time, even a long time. But eventually, we give into temptation.
If we had faith, rather than gritting our teeth and trying really hard, when temptation came we would immediately look up, and say, “You are all I need. Thank you for being better than sin. Thank you for being all I need.”
Do you see the difference? That kind of perspective puts temptation to sin in its proper light; it makes it ugly where before it was appealing.
So Jesus, fresh off his beautiful experience on the mountain, this moment where the Father’s presence covered him in the cloud, is now faced with the harsh reality of all he still has to suffer before going home. John MacArthur says:
“Jesus suffered a lot of things in this life… He suffered, as we all know, physically, at the time of His beating and crowning with thorns and crucifixion… But we also find here that He suffered this personal disappointment and pain over defective followers.”
Similarly, Frédéric Godet wrote a hundred years earlier:
“He feels himself a stranger in the midst of unbelief.… The holy enjoyment of the night before, as it were, made him homesick.”
The Majesty of God (v. 42-45)
We began with Jesus on the mountain; now he has descended into a valley. We began with Jesus enjoying intimacy with his Father; now we see Jesus suffering the disappointment of his faithless followers. We began with Jesus in the midst of the power of God; we now see Jesus coming face to face with the power of Satan.
In every gospel in which we find this story (Matthew, Mark and Luke), it is always following the transfiguration on the mountain. And for good reason. The contrast here is striking. But it’s not just contrast for the sake of contrast. Luke here shows us this contrast for the sake of the one thing that is present, both in the mountain and in the valley, both in enjoyment and in disappointment: the majesty and power of God working through Jesus.
42 While he was coming, the demon threw him to the ground and convulsed him. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit and healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. 43 And all were astonished at the majesty of God.
God’s majesty shined through Jesus on the mountain; now it shines through Jesus in the valley. His glory was seen in intimacy with his Father; now his glory is seen by his faithless followers. We saw Jesus’s power as the Father’s presence covered him; now we see his power overcoming the power of Satan.
No matter where he is, no matter how hard it may be, the one constant here is the majesty of God. Everyone there saw it and was astonished.
And that is why the final verses in this section are so striking and seemingly out of place. V. 43b:
But while they were all marveling at everything he was doing, Jesus said to his disciples, 44 “Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.”
The parallel is striking. “The Son of Man” is Jesus’s favorite title for himself; it means (at its simplest) a human being (I’m a “son of man” too, in the literal sense that my dad is a man), but it also echoes back to Daniel 7, which speaks of a Son of Man as being the heavenly, exalted one: the Messiah. And here he says that very soon, he will be delivered into the hands of men—the Son of Man, delivered into the hands of men, to be beaten, mocked and killed.
Doesn’t it seem strange that Jesus would pick this moment in particular to make his cryptic prediction? Why now, when the disappointment of the disciples’ failure seems to have been wiped away by Jesus’s display of power? Why would he choose this victorious moment to say (as it would seem) that all of his power wouldn’t keep him from suffering at the hands of faithless and powerless men?
The answer is that the horrible things that were about to happen to Jesus would display the same majesty as the miracle he just performed.
There are two clues in these verses which show us what he means.
The first clue is in the way Jesus has phrased his prediction. He doesn’t say, “Men will kill the Son of Man,” but rather, “the Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men.” Delivered by whom? The obvious answer, to both the student of the Bible and to the common reader who’s followed along in this gospel, is that the Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men by God himself.
In other words, when the Son of Man is arrested and tortured and killed by men, it will be because God has put him into their hands.
Jesus says to the disciples, Let these words sink into your ears. The other people in the crowd didn’t believe, but the disciples were meant to be different. They were called to hear and to remember that it was God who delivered Jesus into his enemies’ hands.
But what’s interesting is that for the moment, they don’t understand what he’s talking about, and because what he says seems so cryptic, they’re afraid to pursue the matter any further.
45 But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.
Strangely, that’s the second clue. The disciples’ lack of understanding is meant to show us God’s majesty as well.
Think of what happened when Jesus was arrested. The disciples have followed him to the Garden of Gethsemane, where he is praying. Judas comes leading a crowd. He betrays Jesus, the officers of the temple seize Jesus and arrest him. What do the disciples do?
All but one of them run for their lives. They deny knowing him. They don’t want to suffer the same fate.
At his moment of greatest suffering, Jesus is completely alone.
And that was exactly as God meant it to be.
In Acts 4, the disciples are praying for boldness, and they pray in v. 27:
27 …truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, 28 to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.
What did Pilate and Herod and the Romans and the Jews do? They killed Jesus. They wrongfully condemned him. They beat him mercilessly. They put a cross on his shoulders and made him carry it to a hill, where they nailed him to that cross and left him hanging there until he was dead.
And all of that happened, they say, because the hand of God and the plan of God had decided that all those things would take place.
For God’s plan to be accomplished, Jesus had to suffer. For God’s plan to be accomplished, Jesus had to die. For God’s plan to be accomplished, Jesus had to be abandoned.
So God concealed these things from them, so that when Jesus suffered, the disciples would flee in fear. So that when Jesus suffered, he would suffer alone.
I’ve asked myself why he did that many times. And I’m not absolutely sure, but here’s what I think. I think that God made sure Jesus was alone because he knew what he wanted to do after Jesus. We see in the book of Acts that after Jesus ascends to heaven, the disciples—now apostles—are filled with the Holy Spirit and go out planting churches and preaching the gospel. They would become missionaries whose ministry we are still benefitting from today.
And if they had bravely followed Jesus into battle (so to speak), they may have been tempted to feel like they were in a league of their own. They may have been tempted to say to people, “You guys the ones who really need him. We were there. We stood firm, and fought bravely for him.”
Instead, the apostles went out humbly, remembering how they had not understood. Remembering how they had fled. Remembering their sin. And remembering, in the end, that they needed Jesus every bit as much as the so-called “sinners” they were preaching to. God did not wish his church to be a celebrity-based group. He didn’t want his church to deify the apostles. He wanted every Christian—from the mightiest apostle to the lowest, most “insignificant” follower of Christ—to be on the same playing field.
God made sure that from beginning to end, no one could doubt for a moment that he saved his people. Peter didn’t save them; James didn’t save them; neither did John, neither Paul. Jesus saved his people.
He gets the glory for what he has done.
Although Jesus’s enemies succeeded in killing him, all the time it was God’s victory: they only succeeded because God handed Jesus over to them, to save us all.
Majesty in the Valley
I’ve told this story many times before, but I want to tell it again to illustrate exactly what Luke is getting at here.
When Loanne and I were married, we barely knew each other. We got married nine weeks after we met. For the first couple months it was great. But very quickly our relationship began to strain, because we realized (too late) just how different we were. We have very few interests in common; we don’t think or react the same way; we handle our emotions differently. Not to mention the obvious strain of being in a bi-cultural home: she’s French, I’m American, I grew up in a Christian home, she grew up in an atheist home. On top of all of that, we were very young Christians at the time: I’d been a Christian for about six months, and for her it was just a little longer. We didn’t know what the Bible had to say about life or marriage or how God made us.
All of this added up to one simple fact that we realized before too long: if we had waited to get married, we probably wouldn’t have gotten married. We’d have seen that it would never work. But we knew enough to know that the Bible frowned on divorce, so we felt stuck.
The result of all of that was that the first several years of our marriage was absolute hell. We couldn’t stand one another. We tried, but all of our efforts seemed to fail. To top it all off, we didn’t have a local church where there was any kind of community, so although we lived together, we felt totally alone: I was an ocean away from all of my friends and family, and her family weren’t Christians and so couldn’t possibly understand what she was going through.
All that time, the only refuge either of us found was in the Bible. Although we didn’t know it, both of us were learning to read our Bible and apply it to our lives, independently of one another. And as providence would have it, we arrived at a realization at the exact same time. We both followed the same reading plan, so we both ended up at Ephesians 5 at the same time. And God in his providence put us in the path of good teaching on what marriage is, at the same time.
When we finally talked about it, we were surprised to see that God had been doing the exact same thing in both of us, to bring us to the same place. We decided to try to apply the biblical vision of marriage to our marriage (though it ran counter to all our natural instincts), and as we did, God began to heal our marriage.
We still have nothing in common. We still don’t think the same way or have the same natural reactions. But we are happier today with one another than we were even at the beginning, when everything was good; because we have learned together that God designed marriage to work a certain way, and when we follow his design, it doesn’t matter if we have anything in common—it works, because God made it to work.
And now, with over ten years of experience applying God’s intention for marriage to our home, we have seen how God was working in us through all those long years, to bring us right here.
Here’s my point. God’s majesty, his glory, his goodness, were no less present in those awful years than in the good ones that followed.
Would we have preferred to just have an easy marriage? Of course. We all prefer for things to be easy; we all prefer to be comfortable.
But God’s majesty does not just shine in the things he created good; it shines just as brightly when he takes something we have broken, and makes it new again.
Jesus stood on the mountain enjoying the pure, undiluted presence of his Father. That was good; his majesty shined there.
Then he came down from the mountain, and was met with all the heartbreaking realities of this fallen world: demonic possession and physical harm and unbelief and imminent death. And what happened? He healed the possessed boy, and he accepted his death with open arms, because it was through his death that God would begin to make everything new again.
I don’t know what you’re dealing with today. Some of you may be doing great: a baby’s on the way, or your job’s going well, or you’re about to get married, or you’re just generally happy in God. That’s good. You should see God’s majesty at work in your life, and be thankful for those things.
But I know that some of you are just not there. You’re walking under the weight of this fallen world. You’re suffering financial difficulties; personal betrayals; the consequences of your sin; the consequences of other people’s sin; sickness; uncertainty. You look back at the easy times in your life and you feel homesick for those times. And you pray for God to make everything better.
Maybe he will. I hope he will, and you should pray that he will. But Luke is telling us here that we must not focus so hard on any future deliverance from pain that we are unable to recognize that God’s majesty shines just as brightly in the valley as it does on the mountain. That whatever you’re dealing with is not out of the sphere of God’s plan. That just as he was sovereign over the disciples’ lack of understanding, just as he was sovereign over the death of his Son, he is sovereign over you as well.
And his sovereignty should give us comfort: not at the idea that God will answer all of your prayers, but that in your pain he’s answering prayers you never thought to pray.
Think back to the disciples. They lacked faith at this point in time, but little by little, as they spent time with Jesus, they saw more and more of his glory. And that is what they were sent out with. They were not sent with multi-million-dollar homes and nice suits and expensive cars to show everyone how generous God is. They were sent out, poor amongst the poor, to show that God’s glory shines just as brightly in the valley as it does on the mountain. And they knew it, because they had seen his glory shine on the valley, just as they had seen it shine on the mountain.
Look around you. Try to see past your immediate circumstances—good or bad—and ask God to see his hand at work wherever you are. Because he’s sending you out. He did not save you for you. He saved you to be sent, just like he sent those poor, faithless disciples out. Looking back now, Loanne and I can see that in all of those horrible first years of our marriage, God was preparing us for this church. He was preparing us for you. And for other things we aren’t even aware of yet.
The same goes for you. See his majesty, in your joy and in your sorrow, and take comfort in that majesty, wherever you are, and know that he’s sending you out to show his majesty to others. Be ready.
PRAYER (adapted from The Valley of Vision):
Lord, no matter how good or bad our lives feel today, we live in the valley of this fallen world. But in the depths of this world, we see you in the heights; hemmed in by mountains of sin we can see your glory.
Let us learn by paradox that the way down is the way up,
that to be low is to be high,
that the broken heart is the healed heart,
that the contrite spirit is the rejoicing spirit,
that the repenting soul is the victorious soul,
that to have nothing is to possess all,
that to bear the cross is to wear the crown,
that to give is to receive,
that the valley is the place of vision.
Lord, we know that the stars can be seen from deepest wells, and the deeper the wells, the brighter your stars shine.
Let us find your light in our darkness, your life in our death, your joy in our sorrow, your grace in our sin, your riches in our poverty, your glory in our valley.
And strengthened with that knowledge, send us to proclaim your light and your majesty and your goodness to our city, which needs you.