10. The Faithful Remnant
The Parable of the Persistent Widow (Luke 18:1–43)
Jesus continues His private lesson to His disciples with the parable of the importunate widow:
And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (Luke 18:1–8).
Considering that the disciples would be entering such a pressure cooker for the next several decades, what would be the main remedy to keep them focused on remnant faithfulness? Jesus prescribes constant prayer. The parable argues from the lesser to the greater: if even an unrighteous judge will answer fervent requests of a citizen due to annoyance, how much more shall God—the righteous judge—give justice to His elect when they pray constantly? Indeed, He will, and He will do so speedily. Thus, the constant prayer of the elect is also effective prayer.
There are several things worthy of special notice here. First, this lesson is again only for the disciples—the elect. And this is confirmed by the promise of the parable that God will avenge “his elect” (v. 7). Second, God will avenge them speedily and without delay. Indeed, the vengeance was to come within the lifetimes of the disciples, and so all of this emphatic warning is given to them. Third, the issue for both the widow and the disciples would be justice (vengeance) against their enemies (18:3). Had not Jesus just warned them of the many stumblingblocks that would necessarily come (17:1–2)? Indeed, we learn that the first-century saints who had been murdered by the Jews and others did in fact pray constantly in heaven to be avenged (Rev. 6:10). God’s answer to that prayer would, thus, be the great judgment He had just described (Luke 17:26–37; see also Rev. 11:18). Finally, the issue defining issue would be faith: “when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” (18:8). Yes, of course He would. This was an encouragement to His disciples to remain in prayer. They had just asked for an increase in faith (17:5). Jesus shows them now how to strengthen it through the tough times to come: constant prayer, and that to be avenged.
The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (Luke 18:9–14)
From the parable immediately following we can probably infer that the Pharisees from 17:20 were still within earshot, perhaps in a crowd around Jesus. After He finished instructing the disciples, Jesus then speaks to an unnamed group “who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (18:9–14). We have already seen the character of the Pharisees exposed more than once, and this description fits them well. Jesus says,
Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: “God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.” But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.
Again we see here the motif that the true elect come from among the unrighteous, the tax collectors, etc. Again we have here the reminder that humble repentance is the key to entry into the kingdom. The tax collector theme and true repentance are about to reach an incarnate climax in the person of Zacchaeus in the very near future (Luke 19:1ff). We have seen more than one reference so far to self-justification: the lawyer in Luke 10:25 received the parable of the good Samaritan in return; the Pharisees in Luke 16:15 bore the reproach of hades in the parable of the rich man and Lazarus for their nosy efforts; and here an unnamed group gets the lesson openly. Nothing of which we could even pretend to boast before God will aid justification. Israel must truly repent. And in our exaltation (election) we are never active, only passive: he that humbles himself shall be exalted (18:14).
Indeed this passivity is in itself a mark of those in the kingdom. Just as a little child is brought to Christ, of such is the kingdom of God:
Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it” (Luke 18:15–17).
Luke makes it clear that these were infants (brephe), not just children, and that they were passively brought unto Him. We must assume even that being infants they were literally carried to Him. This is important in the context. The usual understanding, I suspect, retains some validity: that a child has a certain unquestioning faith, and that the key to the passage is that we must have wholehearted faith in order to enter the kingdom. But Jesus had very recently said that only a tiny mustard-seed sized bit of faith could work wonders (17:6). And who in the world would ever enter if the standard was wholehearted faith? No, I think the emphasis here is on the passivity and helplessness of the infants being carried to Him. Of such is the kingdom of God: just like the tax collector whom we just saw declare his total unworthiness apart from God’s initiative to forgive, so all who would enter the kingdom will be absolutely helpless apart from God’s election and carrying. He that humbles himself shall be lifted up.
The High Cost of Discipleship (Again) (Luke 18:18–34)
The continuation of this narrative brings a familiar scene: a prominent young man questions Jesus on the requirements for eternal life. We saw an almost identical discourse in Luke 10:25–28, when Christ was approached by a lawyer. Here it is a “certain ruler”:
And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich (Luke 18:18–23).
Here is another great example of a text that has often been abused for not considering its pre-ad 70 context. If this were meant to express a lasting moral, then we would be forced to acknowledge that Jesus taught perpetual poverty. After all, He clearly told this man that in addition to the commandments, he should sell all of his possessions and give to the poor. He either advocated perpetual poverty as a kingdom ethic, or He didn’t really mean what He was saying—an unacceptable conclusion for any Bible-believer. Or, there is the obvious third option: Jesus was reiterating the costs of discipleship for that generation of believers. Anyone wishing to escape the coming destruction of Jerusalem would need to liquidate their local property. Distribution among the other believers who also needed out would only be the right thing to do with excess cash. As we have discussed more than once already, this is exactly what the early believers did (Acts 2:45; 4:34–35). Especially for a rich man who took great pride in his possessions near Jerusalem, it would be unimaginable to sell everything for something he could not tell was definitely going to happen (certainly not forty years before it would happen—all he had to go on were rumors based on Jesus’ testimony). Yet, Jesus demanded this as the standard of eternal life—just as He had already urged His disciples on several occasions not to be tied down because of possessions, but to be prepared to get out of town at a moment’s notice.
This would be much easier to do for someone who had very little tying them down. For a very wealthy landowner who had staked their social reputation on their status, this would prove an almost insurmountable feat. It would, in fact, be impossible outside of God’s grace changing the heart. This is Christ’s point, and He drives it home with an exclamation: “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God” (18:24–25). His audience realized that this was an impossible standard: “Then who can be saved?” But Jesus reminded them of that all-important lesson He had been preaching throughout the whole journey: only by God’s grace is anyone saved, but all whom God gives grace will be saved—whether rich or poor. In short, only the elect will get out: “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (18:27).
Peter makes a point to announce that he and the other disciples had indeed accepted the high standard of which Jesus spoke: “And Peter said, ‘See, we have left our homes and followed you’” (Luke 18:28). Perhaps Peter thought to provide an example for the doubting audience that indeed this can be done; or perhaps this is just good old impetuous Peter popping up. Whatever the motivation, this shows that Peter understood Jesus to be speaking of literally selling all and following Him. So this cannot surely have been an eternal rule for all Christians everywhere, but only that first-century Church that faced the destruction of Jerusalem, else we should still all embrace perpetual poverty for Jesus. Also, whatever Peter’s motivation, Jesus affirmed the genuineness of the disciples’ sacrifice: “And he said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life’” (18:29–30).
Two things stand out here in reference to the time: the first is the phrase “in this time,” and the second, “in the age to come.” We have also covered the concept of “this time” or “the present time” in discussing the forecasting hypocrisy passage (Luke 12:54–59). Likewise, we have already covered the issue of “this age” versus “the age to come” in our discussion of the parable of the wheat and the tares (Matt. 13:24–30, 36–43). The results of both of the contexts I believe are the same here: Jesus was repeating the distinction between the Old Testament age (in which He and His audience then lived but was drawing to a close) and the New Testament age (which was to come in the future for them). Jesus was assuring Peter that those disciples who gave up everything due to the great division in their lifetimes, would indeed be restored in their possessions already in that generation, as well as in the future New Testament era. This ties right back into the need for a valuable network of friends among the so-called sinners the Pharisees disapproved of; thus, the parable of the unjust manager. These disciples would not be left homeless and with nothing.
So, what this interaction with the rich young ruler boils down to is that same lesson Jesus had been teaching the disciples all along: only the faithful remnant would have faith, and thus obey His commands. This is why Jesus rebuked the ruler at the very outset of the story: “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone” (Luke 18:19). Jesus was certainly correct in His theology (Ex. 15:11; Deut. 4:35), but did He really deny that He Himself was good in this way? This could hardly have been Jesus’ intent. If this were true He would have been denying His own divinity. No, Jesus was simply setting up a test of the ruler’s faith. Did this guy really believe in Jesus? Then Jesus would challenge his casual words up front: Do you call me good? Don’t you know there is none good except God alone? Therefore, do you realize you are calling me God? Now, while this may have been true, Jesus was forcing the guy to remain consistent with his address. Did the man believe in Jesus’ word so much as to sell all he had? It appears that he did not. He could not even obey Jesus’ clear and direct teaching. This was proof that he did not accept Jesus as the divine Messiah. By his fruit he proved he was not a part of the faithful remnant.
The Persistent Remnant Perseveres (Luke 18:31–43)
Jesus then calls the twelve disciples together for a special message. These were the elite of the elite from among His disciples, which at the time numbered at least seventy more (Luke 10:1–24). So this message was intended only for the core of the remnant–the twelve.
The message was a clear statement of Jesus’ soon-coming betrayal and death in Jerusalem. He could not have said it any more clearly than He did:
See, we are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written about the Son of Man by the prophets will be accomplished. For he will be delivered over to the Gentiles and will be mocked and shamefully treated and spit upon. And after flogging him, they will kill him, and on the third day he will rise (Luke 18:31–33).
Of all the people following Him, these closest to Him should have understood what He meant. It is inconceivable that they would not at least understand the meaning of what He said, even if they could not accept it. But this is what we are told happened: “But they understood none of these things. This saying was hidden from them, and they did not grasp what was said” (18:34). At least we are given a reason for their profound lack of understanding: “the saying was hidden from them.” They—even they—had not yet been given grace to receive the Gospel of Jesus’ coming trial and crucifixion.
So why, then, did Jesus call them together for this message? They obviously were not ready to hear it. Jesus knew this before He told them. He was merely delivering the truth to them plainly so that they would recall it after the fact. Indeed, we are told this is the case in Luke’s account of the empty tomb (Luke 24:5–8; see also John 2:22). But this open statement by Jesus here serves a second purpose. A nearly identical scene had played out a very short time before this whole journey toward Jerusalem began (Luke 9:51). In Luke 9:44–45 we witness:
“Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” But they did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.
By repeating and expanding this message to the disciples in 18:31–34 just days before He entered Jerusalem, Jesus was reaffirming that he was still on the same mission he had begun in 9:51. He was confirming for them the continuity of all they had witnessed and heard along the way: all the healings, all the kingdom teachings, all the parables of judgment to come. All of it pertained to this one and same mission of the Son of Man and His conflict with idolatrous, murderous Jerusalem. And while they remained blinded to the message as He spoke, their eyes would be open to it in due time. Then, when once God opened their understanding to all they had heard and witnessed, their lives would be transformed as the truth and meaning of it all fully impacted their souls.
The Blind Remnant Receives Its Sight (Luke 18:35–43)
This final section of chapter 18 combines most of the themes we have discussed—the remnant, the kingdom, blindness, and persistence—together in one healing episode. In short, with the healing of blind Bartimaeus we have a living example of the parable of the persistent widow, lacking only the idea of vengeance upon his enemies. The text reads,
As he drew near to Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. And hearing a crowd going by, he inquired what this meant. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” And he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” And those who were in front rebuked him, telling him to be silent. But he cried out all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus stopped and commanded him to be brought to him. And when he came near, he asked him, “What do you want me to do for you?” He said, “Lord, let me recover my sight.” And Jesus said to him, “Recover your sight; your faith has made you well.” And immediately he recovered his sight and followed him, glorifying God. And all the people, when they saw it, gave praise to God (Luke 18:35–43).
First, this story has an emphasis on the kingdom though in an indirect way. Bartimaeus addresses Jesus as “Son of David”—an acknowledgment of His kingship. This is not widely emphasized throughout Luke, though the birth narrative chapters highlight the fact: the angel Gabriel promises Mary, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:32–33). Likewise, John the Baptist’s father, Zacharias, prophesied of Jesus that God “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (1:69). But we don’t hear much more about Jesus as the heir to the Davidic throne until here when Bartimaeus reminds us that Jesus is indeed the Son of David. Soon, Jesus would make the point Himself (Luke 20:39–44) as we shall see.
Second, the crowd of people who were in front of Bartimaeus told him frankly to shut up. Note, they were “in front”—they blocked his way to Jesus and Jesus’ view of Him. These people were the heirs of the Pharisees and lawyers: “You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering” (Luke 11:52; see also Matt. 23:13). Indeed, it was impossible but that stumblingblocks would be laid for the disciples (how the previous section had just ended, Luke 17:1). These people were literally fulfilling this role in such a manner as was overtly forbidden in Mosaic law: “You shall not curse the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall fear your God: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:14). They were literally putting a stumblingblock in front of a blind man, impeding him from Jesus. This is no random event: as such overt law breakers, they proved the did not fear the Lord. It was one more piece of evidence in Jesus’ lawsuit against unbelieving, law-breaking, covenant-breaking Israel.
And from the remnant’s perspective, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it,” due in large part to unbelievers and false prophets (Luke 17:22). Yet Christ had instructed these to pray persistently and God would answer them despite the impediments (18:1–8). Bartimaeus exhibited his faith with persistent prayer despite the pressures of the people. He was rewarded with the blessing of sight. Being blind he nevertheless saw the kingdom and was rewarded with his physical sight. The others had their physical sight and were yet left with their blindness to the kingdom and no blessing. “For to the one who has, more will be given, and from the one who has not, even what he thinks that he has will be taken away” (Luke 8:18).
Third, Bartimaeus represents the remnant amidst the masses of unbelieving Israel. To the crowd he was an annoyance. But to Jesus, he was of the elect remnant, heir to the blessings of the kingdom.
Fourth, again the decisive issue was faith. Bartimaeus’ persistent prayer was a product of his faith, and this led him against the prevailing forces of unbelief to persevere until the end.
In short, this brief scene encapsulates nearly all of what Jesus had been teaching about the remnant throughout this section of Luke. It was impossible but that stumblingblocks would come, but woe unto the person who lays them (17:1). Meanwhile, the true remnant would be found, saved, and put to faithful work in the kingdom.
Next Section: Dues and Rewards (Luke 19:1–44)