Here in Luke 9, Jesus sends out the twelve disciples as His official ambassadors.and there is a sense of urgency to Jesus' commission that I still find surprising. I am not used to thinking about Jesus in terms of local politics and specific agendas. I am used to thinking about Jesus as a somewhat timeless figure who has come to address things of eternal nature and spiritual substance and other-worldly significance. But we are not dealing with a timeless figure in the Gospels, but an actual, historical person who lived within time, history, and context. And here it seems that Jesus is sending out the twelve disciples because time is running out for His ministry to Israel in particular. Jesus' ministry and presence in the midst of Israel was their long awaited "day of visitation" and they were not acknowledging it. Before too long, they would miss it altogether and all that would be left would be the coming judgment which would be a consequence of not recognizing the day of Yahweh in their midst. Hence, the urgency in Jesus' commissioning of the disciples. We will see this with more intensity as the Gospel narrative develops. Another important development that is taking place here is the fact that the disciples are receiving a portion of Jesus' own vocation. Jesus is sharing His calling of announcing and making a reality the incoming reign of God on earth as it is in heaven with His disciples and giving them a chance to express with their lives what they have confessed worth their mouths, that Jesus really is the Messiah who was renewing Israel to her God-given vocation to be the light of the world. The twelve disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Jesus' re-constituted "Israel" that He was building around Himself, prove the the message they are preaching by embodying an Israel that is bringing renewal, healing, and deliverance to the world, or at least at this point, Israel first. They announced that God was renewing Israel and they demonstrated that God had already begun in themselves. The point of the disciples not taking extra provisions with them had a double purpose of allowing them to travel quickly without carrying a lot of extra stuff and also allowing them to experience God's provision and thus increasing their faith. We should note another very important point here as well: The disciples did NOT yet comprehend that Jesus was going to die, and this point is made more than once in this chapter. Nevertheless, Luke tells us that the disciples were "preaching the Gospel" (Luke 9:6). I was reading a portion of a a blog this morning that defined "the Gospel" like this: When Christians refer to the “Gospel” they are referring to the “good news” that Jesus Christ died to pay the penalty for our sin so that we might become the children of God through faith alone in Christ alone. -- Colin Brown -Bible.org
Now, if the Gospel message is as defined above, how could the disciples preach about something they didn't know? Jesus hadn't died yet, so how could they preach that Gospel? We can only logically conclude that "the Gospel" means something quite different to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and even Jesus. The disciples didn't go around saying that Jesus was the way to heaven. Even if that was the Gospel message, it was not a message they had heard nor had known. What the disciples had heard and known about Jesus, and what Jesus had in fact said and claimed about Himself, was that God was establishing His rule and reign on earth as it is in Heaven, in and through Jesus. "Gospel" means "good news" and the "news" part of that goodness was that God was becoming King in and through Jesus. The fact that this message was and is "the gospel" and not some other message about how individuals get saved for heaven, is the reason that King Herod is brought into the picture with his curiosity tweaked by the rumors of this Kingdom of God movement. Herod had already beheaded a similar popular figure in John the Baptist, Jesus' cousin, who was the forerunner for the movement Jesus was now leading. If someone has appeared on the scene in the vein of John the Baptist, Herod certainly wanted to know about it. Herod's official position as "king of the Jews" was always seeking validation. Herod was not the legitimate King of Jews. It was simply his shrewdness and ruthless war-lord behavior that won him favor with Rome who installed him as a puppet-king in Israel. But Herod had no real royal blood in him and he knew it. And He knew that the people knew it and resented it. Getting the attention of Herod was not exactly what Jesus and the disciples wanted. So, when Jesus heard that Herod was wanting to know more about Him and His followers, He slipped away to "Bethsaida" to try to lay low for a bit. But the crowds soon found out where He was and came there anyway. The disciples had done there job in getting the word out, but now the stakes were raised. However, fear never played a role in Jesus' decision making. The crowds came to Jesus while He was trying to lay low, but Jesus did not send them away. He continued to teach them about the Kingdom of God (the Gospel) and to heal those who needed it.
Now comes one of my favorite stories in the Gospels: The disciples are worried about the crowds because, like Jesus and themselves, they had traveled a good way off the beaten path to be where they were, only they didn't bring any food. If the crowds didn't start heading home soon, they could be in a bad way by time their need really hit them. But Jesus insists that the crowds did not need to go away (even though they may have been a danger to Jesus) but that the disciples should feed them. The disciples answered that they only had two fish and five loaves of bread (maybe this is what the disciples had brought for themselves out in this desolate place?). Jesus seemed to think that it would be enough and He had every sit down before He blessed the food and began to hand it out. Somehow, there was enough food for everyone and there were still twelve baskets full of leftover pieces when everyone had had enough. The miracle itself was awesome but there was a greater promise still: I believe that the twelve leftover baskets was a symbolic promise that there was enough and would always be enough for God's Israel, one basket for every tribe. Since I have been baptized into Jesus, I too am a child of Abraham, a family member of Israel, and I take comfort in this promise. Jesus spent sometime praying alone after this event and it seems that He was trying to evaluate where they had gotten too in their ministry. How effective had they been? What were the people saying about Jesus? What were they believing? Jesus asked the disciples what the people were saying and they answered, "that you are John the Baptist or Elijah who has been raised from the dead. Others say that you are like one of the ancient prophets." That's what some of the popular opinions were about Jesus. But Jesus also wanted to know how He was doing with His own inner circle of twelve, those who are officially sharing in His Gospel announcement. Are they really on board? "Who do you say that I am?" Peter answered "the Christ of God". There are multiple things worth noting here: First of all, Peter was not making the claim that He believed that Jesus was the second person of the Trinity. Peter was saying that he believed that Jesus was God's ultimate, anointed King who was going to set the world right once and for all. There were lots of different popular ideas as to what that king would look like, but it was not assumed that this King would be Divine but only that He would be the instrument of God, like King David or Moses.
Secondly, it is worth noting that while the Israel of Jesus' day was willing to believe that Jesus could be Elijah or John the Baptist, literally resurrected from the dead, they would not have assumed that either John the Baptist nor Elijah were either God or the Messiah simply because they were resurrected. Resurrection alone does not prove anyone to be Messiah or Divine. We need to watch this closely because Jesus' claim to Messiahship and His identity as God the Father are already presented before us, but not in the way that we are used to discovering them. Luke's Gospel narrative is called a "Gospel" because the whole story, not just the resurrection, is making the declaration that God is becoming King in and through Jesus. And finally, Jesus didn't respond to the disciples positive affirmation of His identity as we might have expected. Peter says that they believed Jesus to be the Messiah and that this is what they had been trying to announce to the crowds when Jesus sent them out a short time ago. But now Jesus says to them to keep this opinion to themselves for now. This is honestly quite shocking. Is Jesus waffling? Why would he send out the disciples to announce the Gospel of the Kingdom one day and then tell them to keep it quite the next? And why then, as we shall see, does he send them out again, with an additional fifty-eight others, to announce the Gospel a short time later? It could be that Jesus simply wanted to lay low and let King Herod relax his watch a little bit before He continued. But it could also be that Jesus was warning His disciples and urging them toward subtlety. Jesus wanted Israel to believe in Him as the Messiah but He wanted them to do this by drawing their own conclusions. A straight forward claim of "I am the Messiah" would not only have put Him in the direct line of fire from Herod and from Rome, but it would also force Jesus to have to resist the efforts of the people to squash Him into the shape they had already imagined the Messiah should take. We see an example of this in John's Gospel when the crowds wanted to take Jesus and force Him to be King in the fashion of their own minds. Jesus had to walk a very difficult and narrow line of announcing the Kingdom of God, displaying the signs of Messiahship, but avoiding straight-forward claims. At least, that is what it looks like to me. Jesus' mission called for a combination of tact and boldness that He alone was qualified to undertake and lead. However, Jesus speaks as though His arrest and suffering is inevitable. He says that the Son of Man "must" suffer and be rejected. Nevertheless, it must be at the right time and in the right way. Eventually, as Jesus warns throughout this chapter, Jesus would be arrested and face charges of treason and subversion and blasphemey. But that day was going to come on Jesus' terms and not on anyone else's. As far as Jesus and the Gospel writers are concerned, when Jesus stands before Herod and Pilate, it is Herod and Pilate who are on trial, not the other way around. You may have heard that Jesus' kingdom is an "upside down Kingdom". Maybe we are beginning to see why?