St. Luke 13:18-35 “How Much or How Many?”
18 Then He said, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? 19 It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.”
20 And again He said, “To what shall I liken the kingdom of God? 21 It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.”
22 And He went through the cities and villages, teaching, and journeying toward Jerusalem. 23 Then one said to Him, “Lord, are there few who are saved?”
And He said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able. 25 When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from,’ 26 then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets.’ 27 But He will say, ‘I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.’ 28 There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out. 29 They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God. 30 And indeed there are last who will be first, and there are first who will be last.”
31 On that very day some Pharisees came, saying to Him, “Get out and depart from here, for Herod wants to kill You.”
32 And He said to them, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.’ 33 Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow, and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.
34 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing! 35 See! Your house is left to you desolate; and assuredly, I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’”
We live in a day and age when success is measured by size. People both admire and envy the United States because it is so prosperous and successful, even though there are many other successful countries. People think that the only sports heroes to be admired are those who finish number one. People drive cars that cost them a fortune, just because everyone else is driving one, even if they get bad gas mileage and cost a fortune to fix. Even in the church, there are those who say, “Oh! We have to go to that church, because it’s big and growing, and ours is so small.”
Even in the days of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Rome thought that it was everything because it had conquered many other nations and become the dominant world power of the day. It is against this background that Jesus begins by saying in verses 18 and 19, “What is the kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a mustard seed, which a man took and put in his garden; and it grew and became a large tree, and the birds of the air nested in its branches.” Our Lord is saying that the Kingdom of God begins like a small seed. I’ve collected some mustard seeds, and you can buy them as spices, and of all the seeds, they are among the smallest, and yet such a small seed can produce a large bush. Jesus is warning his disciples, and us, not to be overly impressed by size or power, as size and power means victory, as the Romans thought.
Again, he says in verses 20 and 21, “To what shall I liken the kingdom of God? It is like leaven, which a woman took and hid in three measures of meal till it was all leavened.” What is Jesus saying? He is saying that the Kingdom of God has the power to transform everything around it. It is like leaven, or yeast, that we put into bread and other things. It spreads throughout the bread, and transforms it completely. So it is with the spread of Christianity. I doubt that there has ever been a country with a majority of Christians ever, anywhere, in history. And yet, we see Christian values that have spread throughout the world. It is estimated that at the time of the American Revolution, church membership was about 5%, although church attendance was much higher. And yet, we see many Christian values that were integrated into the laws and values of the new nation. What our Savior is saying is that we should not be principally concerned with numbers, but rather, with the quality and reality of our testimony as believers in Jesus Christ. That is, if we hide or compromise our testimony, then we become what Jesus elsewhere calls “salt without savor” [Matthew 5:13], that is, useless for anything. But here, he is encouraging us that if we speak and act clearly for the truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, that the Lord can use us to transform everyone and everything around us.
But, if what Jesus has just said is true, then the question occurs to one of them, “Lord, are there few who are saved?” [verse 23] That is, if Jesus is saying that it only takes a few true believers in Christ Jesus to transform all around them, is God only going to save a few people?
And so Jesus says to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I say to you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” [verse 24] Usually, when people are looking for followers, they don’t turn them away. And yet, Jesus is saying that many will come to him and be turned away. He says in verse 25, “When once the Master of the house has risen up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open for us,’ and He will answer and say to you, ‘I do not know you, where you are from.” That is, when Jesus comes again, there will be many people who thought that they were following Jesus, and they will be rejected. Such people will say to Jesus “We ate and drank in Your presence, and You taught in our streets,” [verse 26] as if it is enough to be around Jesus to be included in his people. There are many people like that today. They go to church, they call themselves Christians, they give offerings, and they think that’s enough. But He will say to them, “I tell you I do not know you, where you are from. Depart from Me, all you workers of iniquity.” [verse 27] That is, just being around Jesus, just hearing his words, just going to church or calling yourself a Christian, is not enough. You must know Jesus, and be known by him. If you continue your former way of life, and never trust in Christ, and do not live for him, you are fooling only yourself if you think you will inherit eternal life. Jesus will say to you, “Depart from me”, to all those who continue in their sin. Yes, they may indeed claim to have eaten and drunk with Christ, and to have heard his words, but it’s not enough.
He declares to that such people will go to hell, as he says in verse 28, “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out.” That is, there is going to be eternal suffering for those are not true followers of Christ. It is interesting that he says, “when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and yourselves thrust out.” I don’t know who the heroes of the Vietnamese people, but I suppose that if I spoke of Ngyuen dynasty, that you would identify with them. So it was, when Jesus spoke of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, that they Jews thought of themselves as the true descendents, both physically and spiritually, of those men. They presumed that they would be in heaven with them. And yet, Jesus says that when they see Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all that prophets in heaven, that they themselves would be cast out. And remember, that Jesus is answering the question, “Are there few who are saved?” His answer is that we should make sure that we are among those who are going to be saved, because there are going to many who presume that they are saved, but are not.
And yet, he also says in verse 29, “They will come from the east and the west, from the north and the south, and sit down in the kingdom of God.” That is, yes, there are many who will come, but not the ones that you might think. Or rather, it is not necessarily the people who call themselves the people of God, but strangers, as Jesus says, people from “the east and the west, the north and the sought, who will come and sit down in the kingdom of God.” The idea that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is only for one group or people is, and always has been, a mistake. It has always been God’s will for people from every nation, every race, and every language to come to Christ as their Savior.
And so he concludes, “indeed there are last who will be first, and there are first who will be last.” [verse 30] What our Savior is saying is that many, such as the Jews of the time of Jesus, presume that they will be among those who are saved. And Jesus is saying no, but instead, many who do not seem to be naturally a part of the people of God will indeed become his children. We’ve already spoken of race and language, but this also means people who don’t seem “ready” or “willing” to be believers, people whose lives are all messed up, and people who seem to have no interest in spiritual things. Many such people will indeed come to Christ, and find salvation in him, while many religious people who presume that they will be saved, if anyone will be saved, will in fact find themselves left out, for they will not seek after the Lord in his way, which is Jesus Christ.
Some of the Pharisees come to Jesus, and said to him, “Get out and depart from here, for Herod wants to kill You.” [verse 31] It’s interesting that it is the Pharisees, who are usually his enemies, who warn him of the danger posed by king Herod. That is, they think that Jesus is making a mistake in going up to Jerusalem, because they think that Herod will try to kill him there (although as it turned out, Herod lacked either the nerve or the desire to kill Jesus). Or at least, they seem to be acting like his friends, but, look at the response of Jesus to this warning in verse 32, “Go, tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I shall be perfected.’” First of all, he treats the Pharisees like messengers of Herod. They would almost certainly have been insulted by this, since they considered themselves to be the sworn enemies of Herod, and yet, there are only two sides. You are either for the Lord or against the Lord. The enemies of Christ may think that they are working separately, but, from God’s point of view, there are two sides—God’s and everyone else.
So, Jesus says “Go tell that fox” that is, Herod, and yet, I think he is talking more to the Pharisees and his disciples than he is to Herod. He says in verse 33, “Nevertheless I must journey today, tomorrow, and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish outside of Jerusalem.” Jesus clearly knows, even as he approaches the city, that he will die in Jerusalem. The Pharisees were pretending to try to protect Jesus, and Herod was clearly out to get him, but either way, they were both his enemies, because neither group wanted Jesus to fulfill his mission of dying for our sins.
But Jesus was undeterred in his determination to go to Jerusalem, for he loves his people. See what he says in verse 34, “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you were not willing!” Jesus weeps over his people, as evil as they are, not because they deserve his love, but precisely because they turn him away. His Father had sent messenger after messenger to them, and what had they done? Not just ignored them, or rejected them—the people of God had murdered those sent to proclaim salvation to them. And yet, we see Jesus saying how he longed to gather them to himself, as a mother hen gathers her chicks under her wings. In my own church I asked if God is ever spoken of as a woman, and everyone said no. And yes, it’s true, that the masculine article is always used to refer to God, and he is called our Father. And yet, here Jesus compares himself to a mother hen, who loves her chicks, and no, I am not saying that Jesus is a female, but we need to get over the idea that he only loves like a man, for Jesus here says that he loves us like a mother loves her children.
But then, he also explains why they did not come. They “were not willing”. Sometimes we worry too much about the nature of man’s sin, and forget that what matters from our point of view is that we are sinners, and as such, the responsibility for our sin is ours when we sin. God had sent prophet after prophet to the people of Israel, but they would not hear his word. I’m sure they had many fancy excuses for the actions of their fathers, but the fact is that time after time they failed to listen. And now, God had sent his own Son. He was unlike the prophets. Some of the prophets were moody and unwilling, even trying to run away like Jonah, some sinned like Moses, but the Son was not so. He always spoke perfectly and in perfect love. And yet, with all their pride in their religion, and their claim to be the people of God, they rejected the Son of God when he came.
And so he warns them in verse 35, “See! Your house is left to you desolate.” The traitors among them though that they were successful, because Herod had accommodated the Romans, and brought them prosperity. The religious people among them were successful because they had the support of many of the people, and were successfully resisting he Romans. But Jesus says to them that their house is desolate, that is, they really have nothing at all. Oh, yes, they may have achieved their limited goals, and so are many people today. They think that if they get money, or an education, or a good job, or a nice family, that everything is OK. But, like the people in Jesus’ time, they really have nothing that lasts.
He says at the end of verse 35, “assuredly, I say to you, you shall not see Me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!’” He is quoting from Psalm 118, which speaks of the day of the Lord. In a few days, Jesus will enter the city of Jerusalem, and the people will call out this verse to him, saying as well, Hosanna, which means, “save us.” And of course, the people of Jerusalem will see him as he enters the city, and is betrayed, and is mistreated, and dies on the cross.
But I believe that our Lord is both warning and promising much more. Yes, he will come to the city of Jerusalem, and will be murdered, but he will also rise again, as he said in verse 32, “on the third day I will be perfected.” He knew not only of his upcoming death in Jerusalem, but also, of his coming resurrection, and more. He knew that following his resurrection that the Gospel of salvation through him would be preached to all the world, to the north and to the south, to the east and to the west. And he knew as well that he would come again, in the final fulfillment of this verse.
But, just like his first coming, there are many who are not ready for his coming. Oh, they may be religious, they may go to a church of some kind, they may have heard about Jesus. But they don’t trust in him, any more than the Pharisees and Herodians trusted in Jesus. And they are no more ready for his coming. The Lord told them that they would not see him until they said, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the LORD!” For those who reject him, their lives will end just as did Jerusalem, an empty house. But for those who are ready for his coming, they will cry to him, “Hosanna! Save us! For blessed is he comes in the name of the Lord.” And we who trust in him will receive him with great joy beyond words. May God grant us the grace to understand that what is important is not how many there are of us, or how much we have, but if we follow after the Lord in sincerity of heart. If that is so, then we are ready for his coming, and like St. Paul, we can say, “I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep what I have committed to Him until that Day.” [2 Timothy 1:12]. Amen.