The Twelve Apostles
12 One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. 13 When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles: 14 Simon (whom he named Peter), his brother Andrew, James, John, Philip, Bartholomew, 15 Matthew, Thomas, James son of Alphaeus, Simon who was called the Zealot, 16 Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
Blessings and Woes
17 He went down with them and stood on a level place. A large crowd of his disciples was there and a great number of people from all over Judea, from Jerusalem, and from the coastal region around Tyre and Sidon, 18 who had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases. Those troubled by evil [a] spirits were cured, 19 and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all.
20 Looking at his disciples, he said:
"Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
21 Blessed are you who hunger now,
for you will be satisfied.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
22 Blessed are you when people hate you,
when they exclude you and insult you
and reject your name as evil,
because of the Son of Man.
23 "Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets.
24 "But woe to you who are rich,
for you have already received your comfort.
25 Woe to you who are well fed now,
for you will go hungry.
Woe to you who laugh now,
for you will mourn and weep.
26 Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you,
for that is how their ancestors treated the false prophets.
We have experienced a fair amount of upheaval in the last couple of years in American politics. There has been a seemingly increasing divide over the expectations, hope, and ideologies that people have and politics have gotten more contentious than they have been at least in my lifetime. Many people recently have completely lost faith in their representatives to do the right thing, regardless of their own political party or philosophy, or that of their representative. In the last year a unified movement of those who are discontent with the current direction of the American government and American politics has arisen. Those people call themselves the Tea Party movement (deriving their name from the American historical protest known as the Boston Tea Party which took place shortly before the American War for Independence). The primary unifying principles of these people, whether you agree with their beliefs or not, are that government needs to be answerable to the people and needs to be smaller.
Imagine, though, if suddenly one unifying figure rose out of the Tea Party movement and declared that a new era of government had come. Then that individual said that he was forming a group that would ensure that this new era would be built around a group of himself and twelve other individuals that would travel around together and take their new agenda to the people all around the country. It wouldn’t be possible for these thirteen individuals to enumerate every single specific item that they were going to expect in government but they would have a few cardinal rules of thumb. A few things that they supported like smaller government, tax cuts, and balanced budgets, and a few things that they would stand opposed to in all situations like tax hikes, socialistic programs, and corruption. When groups do things like that, one of the clear markers you can use to judge them is by who their enemies become. You can tell a lot about a person if they have the right enemies. A group like that would likely see it as a badge of honor if they were persecuted by the big mainstream media and those who wanted government to continue to get bigger and more powerful.
It’s important, though, to notice one particular detail from the previous imaginary scenario. A group that was talking about a revolution in governmental practices, reducing the power of the government, and getting back to the way things used to be, who declared thirteen people to be the leaders of this movement, would be making an obvious American statement wouldn’t they? Why thirteen? That would be an obvious appeal to the thirteen founding colonies of the United States and would be making a clear statement about the values and beliefs of the movement.
These are exactly the sorts of things that Luke is describing here about Jesus’ new kingdom movement. A deeply symbolic number of leaders, a handful of easily identifiable and repeatable core values that would stand as a good rule of thumb, and of course, the reality of making the right enemies. When we put all of those things together, we get a very clear statement about the values and beliefs of the kingdom of God that was breaking into the world through Jesus’ ministry.
Before Luke gets into any of this, though, he reminds us of the foundation of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus was getting ready to take a big step in his ministry and like he always did, he stopped to align himself with God’s will through the vital discipline of prayer. Jesus didn’t just pray at convenient or noticeable times but he prayed constantly, consistently, and sacrificially. He is often remembered to have prayed early in the morning before most people were awake, or like here, right through the night.
As morning dawned, Jesus chose twelve men who would serve as a the leaders of his movement. The fact that he chose twelve had obvious symbolic undertones to it. Jacob had twelve sons which had eventually developed into the twelve tribes of Israel. The concept of the twelve tribes was practically synonymous with the very idea of being God’s people. So when Jesus chose twelve men to be the symbols and leaders of his kingdom movement, the point was obvious. The twelve tribes of Israel were God’s special people through whom he would work to bless the world but since the destruction of Jerusalem and exile over 500 years before this time, the twelve tribes were a memory and a symbol more than any kind of living reality. Jesus was coming into a storm of all kind of different people claiming new and different ways of being God’s true people but in Luke’s mind, only Jesus had demonstrated the necessary authority to actually do that. The clear symbolism of his choice of twelve was that he was, in his own way, reconstituting Israel. This would be the foundation of God’s new special people, his new family. They were, in fact, God’s renewed Israel but this would be far deeper than just the symbolism of the opening imaginary scenario regarding the Tea Party folks. This really would be the start of God’s renewed people. In fact, this idea of symbolism of twelve and being God’s renewed Israel would go on to become a recurring them for several New Testament writers (Matt. 18:28; Jam. 1:1; Rev. 7:3-8; 21:12, 14, 16, 21; 22:2). There was also, perhaps, bold significance in the fact that just as Israel had twelve historic tribes who were led by God himself, that Jesus was not part of the Twelve but stood apart from them, leading them and taking on the role of God himself.
With his leadership of the renewed Israel firmly in place through the guidance of an overnight prayer session and the Holy Spirit, Jesus is ready to begin to give out samples of what this new kingdom will be all about. It is a place of healing and wholeness. The people were so convinced of his power and authority that they were, no doubt, pushing in on one another just to be able to touch Jesus. Now they were ready to hear the rules of thumb of the kingdom of God. These were not the whole of the values of the kingdom but simply slogans and principles that could be easily remembered and applied to one’s way of life in general which would then guide his followers in most specific events that might arise. These were not requirements to enter the kingdom but were, rather, descriptions of the values of the resurrection age. These values are completely the opposite of the normal values of human society. That’s the whole point here. The woes and blessings are generalizations intended to teach those who would follow Jesus and be part of the renewed Israel that they needed to upend their values and no longer conform to the patterns of thinking that they had learned in the world (cf. Rom. 12:1-2).
Each of the four blessings from verse 20-22 correspond to the four woes given in verses 24-26. But we must stress again that these are not intended to be specific truths as though you really are blessed for being poor and that being rich is automatically something that will disqualify you from the kingdom of God. The point was that the renewed kingdom of God would bring good news to the oppressed and outcast, those who had no reason to expect much good news in this age. Those who put the values of the resurrection age and lived according to God’s will rather than by the things of the world would truly be blessed. This is best captured quickly by saying that those who are poor, hungry, who weep and who are hated for the sake of the Messiah are those who will embrace the kingdom of God.
Those who embrace the things of the world and seek after success according to the values of anything other than in Jesus’ kingdom will find themselves cursed and outside of the new family of God. Those who value earthly riches, comfort, prestige, and their own will, will laugh now, thinking that they have “conquered the world,” but soon enough that will all be shown to be a wasted life. The idea of wasting your life and forfeiting your soul by seeking the things of this world and doing your own will is one that Luke will return to again and again.
But just because someone desired to be part of this renewed humanity and be part of the family of God through whom the whole world would be blessed, they shouldn’t begin to think that this would bring comfort, power, or prestige but just in a different way. God’s people are those who completely reject those things from earthly sources and realize that they can only find those things in the resurrection age of Christ. This means being prepared to be hated and rejected by the world. If Christians are truly embraced by the world then that is probably a pretty good sign that they have become like the world. Truly sticking to Jesus’ counter-cultural values would get Jesus’ kingdom people the same sort of treatment that the prophets of the Old Testament got. They were the ones who spoke God’s words and called Israel to do God’s will and it wasn’t as if they were ever treated very well, says Jesus. The prophets were generally rejected, ignored, hated, and eventually killed. The ones who were embraced and spoken well of were the false prophets. That should always serve as a stark reminder to the dangers inherent in the desire to be well thought of and celebrated in the world.
This would be the shape of God’s family, his kingdom. But it’s not as though we should fool ourselves into thinking that this was some temporary, radical measures that can now be relaxed as we can fit into the culture around us a little more. We are still called to be the renewed Israel built on the foundation of the twelve, the new and special people of God. And that means that we are stilled called to live by the sharp standard of those blessings and curses in ways that turn our world upside-down just as much as it did then.
When you have a major event coming up or decision do you turn to prayer as consistently as Jesus did? Do you follow his example of sacrificial prayer? When was the last time that you prayed for something so fervently that you even came close to praying though the night? Remember, it’s not so much the act of praying through the night but the sacrifical heart behind it.