17 The seventy-two returned with joy and said, "Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name."
18 He replied, "I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. 20 However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven."
21 At that time Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, "I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.
22 "All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him."
23 Then he turned to his disciples and said privately, "Blessed are the eyes that see what you see. 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it."
When I was a kid I participated in many different kid’s sports leagues, especially in baseball and basketball. They were always fun but there was a big focus back then on winning. That was really considered to be the point of playing sports even for those of us who were very young. Our understanding of success did not stretch any farther than whether we won the game or not. Now that I am older and have my own children playing in sport’s leagues in many different sports including soccer, football, and basketball, I have seen a dramatic shift in the purpose of kid’s sports leagues. No longer is the focus on winning. The primary purpose of the kid’s sports leagues now is to have fun. Everyone is a winner, they tell them, just for participating. I tend to think that they’ve gone a little overboard in all of that. Winning certainly isn’t the only thing, but they exaggerate it to the point where they don’t even keep score anymore, which seems a little pointless to me, I have to admit. A few weeks ago, though, my six year old’s basketball team had won their game convincingly. How do I know they won, you might ask if no score is kept? Because, as I explained to my wife, every man in the gym knows the score of the game whether they put it up on the scoreboard or not. As the kids were coming off of the court celebrating their win, I heard the kids being corrected several times by the workers at the league, reminding them that the important thing was that they all had fun not that they won the game.
Sometimes we, as humans, have a tendency to celebrate the wrong things (although I have to admit, I’m not sure that the above example actually does fall into that category—I’ll leave you to decide that for yourself). We can easily get focused on the things that don’t really matter that much and over-emphasize them. We celebrate the external looks of someone over their internal spiritual beauty. We judge people’s success by how much money and possessions they have rather than by how consistently they do the will of God in their life. It just seems to be part of our fallen human state to focus on the wrong things and miss what is truly important. Despite the incredible privilege of following Jesus on a day-in-day-out basis, the disciples were just as prone to that error as any other human being. As they continue their crash-course in true discipleship of Jesus, they will learn that great victories are not the true spiritual measure of success.
The time for Jesus’ kingdom announcing mission to Israel was running short. As part of the urgent nature of his mission, Jesus had selected seventy-two disciples (a likely symbolic number for the traditional number of Gentile nations) to take part in proclamation of the coming kingdom. Strangely, Luke never records the success or failure of the mission itself. The disciples themselves seem to want to celebrate the fact that they had exercised incredible authority that came from Jesus over the demonic. The Twelve had been given authority over demons and then seen failure in casting out demons when they failed to rely on God alone. So, it’s not difficult to understand why they were so enthralled at having authority over the forces of evil. But if the disciples had gotten a bit off track in the true nature of their mission and what defined success for them on this mission, then why doesn’t Luke himself record whether they were well received or not? He simply never tells us whether or not they succeeded.
Perhaps this was no oversight on Luke’s part but was, instead, part of the whole point of his reporting of this section. Whether or not the audience listens to or responds positively to God’s chosen mouthpiece is never the measure of success. As God warned the prophet Ezekiel, “Say to them, 'This is what the Sovereign LORD says.' And whether they listen or fail to listen—for they are a rebellious house—they will know that a prophet has been among them. And you, son of man, do not be afraid of them or their words. Do not be afraid, though briers and thorns are all around you and you live among scorpions. Do not be afraid of what they say or be terrified by them, though they are a rebellious house. You must speak my words to them, whether they listen or fail to listen, for they are rebellious. But you, son of man, listen to what I say to you. Do not rebel like that rebellious house; open your mouth and eat what I give you” (Ezek. 2:4-8). The measure of success for the disciples, as for Ezekiel, was whether they had obeyed God in spreading his message not whether people listened to that message.
The fact that they had made an assault on the demonic forces was not inconsequential. That was part of Jesus’ mission. He was not just spreading a new religious message, he was indeed making an assault on Satan himself. He had come to defeat Satan, sin, and death itself and their conquest over the demonic was a very real demonstration of that. It was, in fact, a continuation of the conquest and defeat of Satan and his demonic forces that Jesus had begun in the wilderness, resisting the temptations of Satan. In their continued assault on the forces of evil, Jesus says that he saw “Satan fall like lightning from heaven,” an obvious allusion to Isaiah 14:12. It seems unlikely that Jesus was just throwing in an odd bit of information that he was around and had seen Satan cast out of heaven, an incident to which Isaiah 14 seemingly refers. More likely was that Jesus’ point was that as the kingdom advanced, Satan was losing power. He was being cast out of strongholds just as he had once been cast out of heaven. But ultimately this was Jesus’ fight and it wasn’t yet over. It was not the primary focus of their mission and so they should not celebrate it as such.
The real source of joy, the real thing that they should be celebrating was the fact that they were among those who were obedient to God’s word. They were speaking the words given to them and showing that their names are written in heaven, a reference to the Book of life where the righteous will be named (Ex. 32:32; Ps. 69:28; Isa. 4:3; Dan. 7:10; 12:1; Phil. 4:3; Rev. 3:5; 20:12, 15; 21:27).
The very act of them going about and declaring Jesus’ message and sharing in his authority was the point. The defeat of the demonic was not the primary thing to focus on, it was that they were aligned with God’s will that was truly important. This is what brought Jesus an incredible burst of joy and was what they should be celebrating. The wise and the learned were not the ones that were embracing the kingdom message, they were rejecting it.
Yet God showed his glory through these disciples, these little children (the word is literally “infants” but was often used as a metaphor for one who was untaught or unskilled). This is the nature of the gospel. “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Cor. 1:27). The coming kingdom would result in the great reversal that Mary had spoken of before Jesus’ birth (Lk. 1:51-53). God always chooses the weak, unskilled, and unimpressive to declare his message so that there will be no mistake made between the power of the message and that of the messenger (see 2 Cor. 4:7). God honors, uses, and ultimately exalts those who humbly rely on him fully.
It is those who rely on Jesus alone who will have the Father revealed to them. The authority of the Father is placed in the Son and it is the Son alone who reveals the Father. This is reminiscent of Jesus’ declaration in John 14:6 that he is “the way, the truth, and the life,” and that no one can come to Father except by the Son alone. There is, then, an important chain that Luke has linked together in this passage. In verse 16, Jesus declared clearly that whoever listened to their message listened to him and whoever rejected their preaching likewise rejected him. Now Jesus has confirmed that he is the only way to the Father. Thus, those who rejected the message of the disciples were rejecting any access that they might have to God. Jesus alone is the way and in rejecting the preaching of the disciples, they were rejecting that one way.
Luke, we should note, seems to continue to follow the pattern of Deuteronomy in his quest to show that this journey to Jerusalem is primarily about revealing the true people of God. In Deuteronomy 3:23-4:40, Moses thanks God for his perfect law which had given to his people and which caused the other nations to look and say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people” (Deut. 4:6). The disciples were blessed, not through any work or effort of their own. They didn’t need to celebrate in anything more than that they had been allowed to hear the message of the kingdom, to see its coming, and to become God’s people through the Messiah. Many prophets and kings had longed for the coming of God’s kingdom and had never seen the day. In recounting the lives of the great heroes of the Bible who had never seen the kingdom of God for themselves, the writer of Hebrews proclaimed “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Heb. 11:39-40).
Jesus was making his way to Jerusalem where he would make his final assault against Satan, evil, and death itself but the results of that victory were already beginning to take seed. Jesus would go into death and lay down his own life like a seedling, but the result would be the defeat of death and the flowering of a new creation of people who would come to know the Father himself through the Son and would become the very family of God that he had always promised.
Is God enough for? Is obeying his word and drawing close to him enough for you to celebrate or do you need constant “spiritual victories” in order to feel validated or that you are close to God? Do you celebrate at the fact that your name is written in heaven rather than whether you are “successful” in other ways or not?