LUKE HAS JUST recorded the choice by the Lord of the twelve Apostles and also the instructions He gave them, particularly as to the gracious spirit that was to characterize them, and the reality that was to mark them. We find that He did not immediately dispatch them on their mission but retained them in His company, that they might further learn of Himself both by His words and His actions. The sending out to serve does not come till the beginning of the ninth chapter.
We have already noticed how this Gospel is characterized by the unfolding of grace. This chapter, we see, carries on this theme by showing very strikingly the extent to which grace reaches. The blessing goes out to the Gentile, to the dead, to the degraded. Moreover the way in which grace is received comes very clearly to light-by repentance and faith.
The first case recorded is that of the Gentile. The centurion showed that he accepted his place among the "aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise" (Eph. 2: 12), by sending the Jewish elders to intercede for him. The elders, true to their upbringing under the law, would have utterly spoiled grace by representing the centurion as worthy. His worthiness, according to them, consisted in his kindly attitude and acts towards themselves! This was quite typical of the Jewish mind. Instead of seeing how their own law condemned them, they treated it as a distinction conferred upon them, they became self-centred; they made themselves, and the treatment accorded to themselves, the criterion of others. Judged by their standards this Gentile was a worthy man.
The centurion himself, however, was under no illusion on the point. He confessed himself to be unworthy, and thus manifested the spirit of repentance. At the same time he manifested remarkable faith in the grace and power of the Lord. He held a minor position of authority in the military organization of Rome, yet his power was absolute in his own small circle. He discerned in the Lord One who wielded authority in a vastly greater domain, and he was confident that a word from Him would effect all that was needed. Our language should be similar to his. It is enough that He should "say in a word," and we need nothing beside. The faith that simply takes Him at His word, without reasonings, feelings or experiences, is "great faith" according to our Lord. We see moreover how intimately faith and repentance are connected. They go hand in hand.
From this case we pass to that of the dead man, being carried out of Nain to the grave. Here faith is not visible at all: His compassions and His action fill the scene. Grace and authority are equally and harmoniously displayed. Divine compassion shone forth in the words, "Weep not," uttered to the sorrowing mother. His authority was displayed, in that the moment He touched the bier the whole funeral procession came to a standstill. Then His word of power brought the young man back to life.
Here is One who speaks, and the dead obey Him. "I say unto thee, Arise." Who is this "I"? We may well ask this question. The people evidently asked it, and they decided that God had raised up a great prophet in their midst, and tidings of these things reached as far as to John the Baptist in his prison. Now a question, as to who He was after all, was at that time uppermost in John's mind, so this incident as to John's messengers comes in very appropriately at this juncture.
Verses 19-35 seem to be a kind of parenthesis in which we are shown that the display of power exercised in grace, and not in outward pomp, is the proof of the presence of the Messiah. The messengers of John were permitted to see ample proofs of that gracious power. They saw Him doing what Isaiah 61: 1 had said He would do. That was ample proof of who He was.
Then, turning to the people when John's messengers were gone, He pointed out that John himself, His forerunner, had not been a mere nonentity, nor had he come in pomp and luxury. His whole mission had been strictly in keeping with the character of the One whom he announced, who was infinitely great and yet come in lowly grace. He designated John as a prophet so great that there was none greater than he. This of course at once showed that when the people spoke of Christ Himself as "a great prophet" they were falling far short of the truth concerning Him.
As far as John was concerned, though so great, the one that should be least in the coming kingdom of God would be greater than he-not morally, but in the position that would be his. Morally John was very great indeed, and his testimony of such importance that men's destiny was determined by their attitude towards it. The publicans and sinners accepted it, and, thus justifying God, were led ultimately to Christ. The Pharisees and lawyers rejected it, and in due course they rejected Christ. Verse 28 can only be understood as we distinguish between that moral greatness, which depends upon a man's character, and the greatness which springs from the position into which God may be pleased to call us, which varies in different dispensations.
The Lord now gives in a striking little parable the character of the unbelieving generation that surrounded Him. They were like petulant children who were agreeable to nothing; neither the gay nor the grave would they accept. So the Jews would not bow to the searching testimony of John, nor would they rejoice in the gracious ministry of Jesus. They denounced the one as being possessed by a demon, and falsely criticised the other. Still there were those who discerned the Divine wisdom in both testimonies, and these were the true children of wisdom.
In the incident which closes this chapter we have all this most strikingly exemplified. Simon, the Pharisee, was amongst the critics, whom nothing pleased, though he invited Jesus to a meal in his house. The poor woman of the city was one of those who justified Jesus, and thereby she proved herself to be a true child of wisdom, and also she herself was justified.
The sorrow and contrition of the woman was nothing to the proud Pharisee. Satisfied with himself he was critical of Jesus, imputing to Him the feelings which he would have entertained toward such a person. As a result he felt sure that Jesus was no prophet at all. Verse 16 has shown us that the common people at least thought that He was a prophet, and a great one; Simon had not got as far as that. They had a glimmer of light; he was totally blind, for false religion is the most blinding thing on earth. However, the Lord quickly gave Simon a sample of the mighty prophetic powers that He possessed.
Simon only "spake within himself." He thought that Jesus had no discernment as to the woman. The Lord at once showed him that He knew his hypocrisy, and read his secret thoughts, by propounding to him the parable of the two debtors. One debtor was involved in liabilities ten times "mater than the other; yet, since neither had any assets, both were equally bankrupt. And the creditor treated them alike; there was forgiving mercy for both. This parable was intended to bring home to Simon that though his sins might be fewer than the woman's, he too was utterly insolvent and he needed forgiving mercy just as she did.
Now debtors do not usually love their creditors, yet a sense of the grace that forgives does provoke love, and even Simon could judge rightly as to this. But then, the application was easy. Simon had studiously refrained from offering the Lord the most ordinary courtesies according to the customs of those days. Neither the water for His feet, nor the kiss of welcome, nor the oil for the head had been forthcoming. He had received the Lord in a way that amounted to offering Him an insult; yet the poor woman had made up for it all in abundant measure. He had no sense of guilt, and no love for the One who came in the grace of forgiveness: she had a true and deep repentance, coupled with faith in Jesus, and a fervent love for Him.
So we see how grace flows out to the degraded, and again we see how repentance and faith go hand in hand: they are like the obverse and reverse of a single coin. The grace that flowed out to this woman is the more striking inasmuch as it reached her in a purely spiritual way. She did not come with bodily ills and distresses to be cured; her ills were spiritual; her burden was that of her sins. Grace bestowed upon her an abundant forgiveness, and Simon was plainly told that such was the case.
But the Lord did not only speak of her forgiveness to the Pharisee, He also dealt with her personally as to it. What balm for her weary spirit must have been those four words, "Thy sins are forgiven." The saints of earlier days brought the appropriate sacrifice for each trespass or sin, and then knew that the particular sin was forgiven; they hardly knew such a complete absolution as the words of Jesus gave to her. The onlookers might well ask, "Who is this that forgiveth sins also?" God was here in the fulness of grace in the humbled Saviour.
Not only did He forgive, He gave the woman the assurance of salvation, and also declared that her faith had been the means of it. Apart from this word, she might have imagined that it had been procured by her sorrow or her tears. But no: faith it is that establishes the all-essential contact with the Saviour which brings salvation. She could indeed "Go in peace," for she not only had forgiveness, which covered all her past, but salvation, which meant a deliverance from the evil that had enslaved her. This is what grace accomplishes.
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