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The Times They are a-Changing
OT Reading: Is.52:13-53:12
NT Reading: Luke 22:35-38
It was in 1964 that Bob Dylan released his third album and it contained one of his most famous songs – The Times they are a-Changing. Well the times were about to change in a very dramatic way for Jesus’ disciples though they didn’t realise it yet even though Jesus had spoken with ever increasing clarity about his imminent suffering and death. They had failed to understand when Jesus had spoken to them about this and so they were in no position to understand what he had to say about his subsequent resurrection from the dead either. But these momentous events were now very much at hand and in his wonderful love and compassion Jesus still wanted to prepare his disciples for what lay ahead.
These men had been with Jesus for some three years now following him and doing what he told them to do but the time had come when the conditions of their discipleship would be radically changed. If they had grown comfortable and secure in their current circumstances they would soon find their whole world turned upside down. Great new responsibilities would be laid upon them and they wouldn’t have the encouragement and strength of Jesus’ physical presence with them day by day as they had known it before.
Up to now when antagonism came their way because of Jesus’ preaching and teaching the opposition had largely been focused upon Jesus himself. But Jesus was soon to be removed from the picture. That removal would not spell the end to hostility but his enemies would simply redirect it and it would fall upon his followers. If they couldn’t touch Jesus anymore the next best thing they could do would be to target his followers. The disciples who had benefitted from the protection and presence of their strong, commanding leader would but the situation was about to become very different.
Discipleship in Changing Circumstances
The first thing that Jesus did was to invite his disciples to think back to earlier missions on which he had sent them.
On those missions Jesus had sent them out in a very simple manner – the disciples hadn’t been required to make any preparations and they hadn’t been expected to make provision for themselves either.
v.35 "And he said to them, "When I sent you out with no moneybag or knapsack or sandals, did you lack anything?" They said, "Nothing."
In the past that is how it functioned for the disciples and they didn’t go short in any way – they discovered that they had everything they needed to complete their mission. Jesus had done all that was necessary and they hadn’t had to worry about a thing.
But now, Jesus told them, things were about to change, a new set of circumstances was being brought in and everything would soon be very different indeed. The disciples would no longer be able to carry on in exactly the same manner as they had before. As they had obeyed him in one set of circumstances in the past and found him to be wonderfully faithful so they must learn to trust him to be faithful in the entirely different set as well.
v.36 "He said to them, "But now let the one who has a moneybag take it, and likewise a knapsack. And let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one."
In the new situation the disciples would still be responsible for obeying their Lord but now it would be an obedience carried out without his reassuring physical presence with them. They would have to step up to the plate and shoulder that responsibility, which would involve them not only in careful planning but also in taking steps to ensure they had sufficient resources before they set out. Specifically Jesus told them to have some funds available, some items to facilitate normal everyday life. I wonder if in his knapsack the apostle Paul carried the tools he needed to make tents for we find him from time to time supporting himself on his mission trips by this very mundane method.
But what did Jesus mean when he spoke about making sure they each had a sword?
Two different lines of interpretation have been suggested.
Firstly, there are those who wish to interpret this in a figurative manner. The disciple must be ready on mission to engage in spiritual warfare and the Word of God is described elsewhere in the NT as being the "sword of the Spirit" and it is indeed a "sharp double edged sword"!
If this is the right interpretation here (and it certainly contains truth that is taught in other parts of the Scripture) then the disciples’ reaction in v.38 where they answer that they have two swords would suggest that they have failed once again to understand what Jesus was saying. Jesus then rebuked them and cut short any further discussion as he effectively replied: "That’s enough of that kind of talk!"
Such an understanding would certainly seem to fit in with the way Jesus disapproved of the use of force later in the Garden of Gethsemane. There, when Peter took a sword and in his attempts to defend his Lord cut off the ear of the servant of the High Priest, Jesus immediately reacted by saying:
v.51 "No more of this!"
He then went on to touch his ear and heal the poor man.
Secondly, there are those who argue that if the moneybags and the knapsacks were real literal items so must the sword be considered to be a real literal sword as well. If this were the case then Jesus was authorising his followers to take some practical steps in order to ensure a degree of personal security. The sword would enable them to defend themselves from robbers or brigands on the road as they were about their legitimate business.
In support of such an interpretation attention is drawn to the fact that Jesus obviously hadn’t forbidden his disciples from carrying weapons as is clear from the fact that the disciples were immediately able to produce two swords!
Those who take this view consider Jesus’ response of "It is enough" not as a criticism of the disciples but of approval – two swords were sufficient for a small group. (We must be careful with becoming too literal in our understanding here after all in the light of what was coming two swords would offer scant defence against a heavily armed crowd.)
If this second interpretation is right in thinking that Jesus was talking about real swords and the use of real physical force then it must lead to the following question: Why did he disapprove of the use of force in Gethsemane? After all Peter was acting defensively, wasn’t he?
The answer would be of course that just because the use of force may be right in some circumstances that doesn’t mean that the use of force is right in all – in particular it is not right to use force to secure spiritual ends. Peter may well have thought he was fighting for the Kingdom of God in resorting to armed defence of Jesus but the Kingdom of God relies on spiritual weapons. Whenever the church has tried to advance the Kingdom by the sword it has gone astray.
Whichever interpretation you choose as the right one don’t let that blind you to the main thrust here: the circumstances of discipleship can and do change. Jesus had been physically present with those first disciples in a way he has not been present with Christians down through the centuries. All that was about to change for those first disciples. Jesus would still be with them only from now on it would be in a spiritual manner, by his Spirit. Jesus has promised never to forsake his followers even though his presence is no longer physical or visible.
Just as his followers then were being told that they would have to make sensible preparations for pursuing their lives as his disciples so must we. Nevertheless they still had to rely on him to lead them, to provide for them and to bless them and so must we. The disciple today is not left all on his own, as it were, he must plough and he must sow but he knows that God is the only one who can and does give the increase.
So when the time came the circumstances of discipleship changed and called for faithfulness to be expressed in new and appropriate ways. While we will not experience the same seismic shift in spiritual circumstances that those first disciples were being prepared for we will nevertheless need to ensure that our discipleship is appropriate to the circumstances in which we find ourselves. Change is necessary when the circumstances demand it and not all change is necessarily bad.
But why were the times a-changing?
Jesus was not content simply to issue a new set of instructions to his disciples to implement in the fresh circumstances they would shortly encounter; he wanted to explain a little more just what was going on. In doing so he spoke clearly about himself. Verse 37 might be short but what a tremendous amount of important information it contains!
v.37 "For I tell you that this Scripture must be fulfilled in me: ‘And he was numbered with the transgressors.’ For what is written about me has its fulfilment."
Indeed as Jesus continued here he made it very clear that the change of circumstance, and consequently the required change in the behaviour of the disciples, was due to what was about to happen to him as God’s plan continued to be worked out in his own life.
Let’s look at what he said and how he said it.
Jesus quotes from Isaiah 53.
"this Scripture must be fulfilled in me" he declared.
This was and is a very significant chapter in the OT. It is part of God’s holy and infallible Word and Jesus believed it all. God’s word had directed his life and ministry up to this point and it would continue to do so right up to the very end. Jesus believed that what God’s word said was true and when it spoke about things yet to come that all of those things would occur. How could it be otherwise?
This particular chapter speaks about the servant of the LORD and amongst Jews of the 1 st century this servant was to be identified as the Messiah. Jesus made it very plain that he considered the prophecy to be referring to him.
Jesus believed that everything Isaiah prophesied concerning this servant of the LORD would be realised – it was God’s word there was no way that it would not be fulfilled. Jesus had come into the world not to be served but to serve and he would exit this world in exactly the way Isaiah said he would, as a suffering servant.
Many/most of you are familiar with the fifty third chapter of Isaiah. It speaks eloquently about a man who didn’t outwardly have anything going for him. This man grew up to be despised and rejected by his contemporaries. He was executed and the prevailing opinion was he got what he deserved. And yet, and yet...
The reality was far different from the appearance. Yes, he suffered in an appalling way but it wasn’t because he had done anything wrong. He was treated as a sacrificial lamb and when his life was taken away it was because the LORD laid the iniquities of others to his account and punished him in their place. He died for the sin of others and it could not be put down to some judicial mistake or other – it was the LORD’s will that he should suffer in this way. It was all part of God’s wonderful plan of salvation.
This is what Is.53 is all about and it is a Scripture from this passage that Jesus quoted. Jesus believed it described what would happen to him.
Is.53:12 "Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong, because he poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors."
And Jesus was not wrong!
We must pause for a moment:
We have seen that Jesus believed God’s word to be true. He was convinced that all that it said had to be fulfilled and what is more he focused that fulfilment in himself.
Is that how you view God’s word?
Do you believe that what it says is true, that what is declares must be fulfilled? Do you believe that Jesus himself stands right at the very heart of it all? That was Jesus’ conviction, he not only believed the Bible but believed it spoke about him!
Jn.5:39 "You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me"
Lk.24:27 "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself."
And in this he was followed by the writers of the NT:
1Pet.1:10-11 "Concerning this salvation, the prophets who prophesied about the grace that was to be yours searched and inquired carefully, inquiring what person or time the Spirit of Christ in them was indicating when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the subsequent glories."
How foolish we would be to dismiss the Bible on the pretext that it was full of errors when Jesus, the best of men, believed it to be true! How foolish we would be to read the Bible and imagine that there we will find a way of salvation that doesn’t involve us focusing our gaze on Jesus and putting our trust in him! If we come away from the Bible thinking that we can save ourselves simply by doing this or doing that then we haven’t read the Bible as it should be read – the Bible leads us inexorably to Jesus!
It would only be a matter of hours after speaking like this to his disciples that Jesus was to be literally numbered or counted amongst transgressors. In just a few hours he would be arrested as any common criminal might be hunted down; he would be judged by unscrupulous and unrighteous men who were already sure of his guilt and determined to have done with him come what may; he would quickly be condemned to die a criminal’s death with criminals executed on either side of him.
How could life go on as before when something as momentous as this took place? When the Messiah died in the place of rebellious sinners and all according to the plan and foreknowledge of Almighty God surely there must be a change of circumstances that will have a profound and lasting effect upon not merely his own followers but upon the whole world!
And all the disciples can think about is the number of swords they have! They pick up on a detail and miss the essential.
Did you notice that? Not a word about Jesus’ understanding of the Bible, about God’s plan of salvation, about Jesus self-identification with the suffering servant-Messiah of Isaiah’ prophecy, nothing about the fulfilment of this divine plan in Jesus and Jesus had just declared to them that it does in fact have its fulfilment in him. His words convey the idea that the fulfilment was even then beginning to take place, it was all about to be completed in the next few hours and then, then it would be over and done and he would be able to cry out on the cross in triumphant victory as he bowed his head and committed his spirit into the hands of the Father "It is finished!"
It had to happen, it was God’s plan and there was absolutely nothing to be pessimistic about. Jesus did not confront his final hours in some dreadful fatalism but with confident even joyous expectation. Oh yes, he would be tested severely in the Garden but he won the victory there and the writer to the Hebrews tells us:
Heb.12:2 "Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God."
And at that right hand he now intercedes on behalf of his people – exactly as Isaiah said he would at the end of that wonderful 53 rd chapter, in the words immediately the ones that Jesus quoted here:
v.12 "yet he bore the sin of many, and makes intercession for the transgressors."
Have you seen what the big issue is and have you done anything about it? Or are you still looking in the wrong direction, focusing on entirely the wrong thing.
Give up on your old ways, repent and come to Jesus Christ and you will life, abundant life for your soul and you will be able to begin to live for him in whatever circumstance he leads you to.
May God be praised for his wonderful plan and the inexpressible gift of his Son!