The Celebration of Jesus: Luke 10.17–24
The seventy came back exhilarated. ‘Master,’ they said, ‘even the demons obey us in your name!’
‘I saw the satan fall like lightning from heaven,’ he replied. 19‘Look: I’ve given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over every power of the enemy. Nothing will ever be able to harm you. 20But – don’t celebrate having spirits under your authority. Celebrate this, that your names are written in heaven.’
Then and there Jesus celebrated in the holy spirit. ‘I thank you, father,’ he said, ‘Lord of heaven and earth! You hid these things from the wise and intelligent, and revealed them to babies. Yes, father, that was what you graciously decided. 22Everything has been given me by my father. Nobody knows who the son is except the father, and nobody knows who the father is except the son, and anyone to whom the son wishes to reveal him.’
Jesus then turned to the disciples privately. ‘A blessing on the eyes’, he said, ‘which see what you see! 24 Let me tell you, many prophets and kings wanted to see what you see, and they didn’t see it; and to hear what you hear, and they didn’t hear it!’
What was it like being Jesus? That’s one of the hardest questions for anyone reading the gospels, but this passage gives us some clues.
It’s all too easy for Christians to make the mistake of thinking that he just sailed through life with ease; being divine, we sometimes suppose, meant that he never faced problems, never had to wrestle with difficulties. Of course, the gospels themselves give us a very different picture. Yet we can easily be fooled into thinking of Jesus as a kind of Superman.
That sort of understanding might seem, to begin with, to be supported by this passage. Jesus speaks of seeing the satan fall like lightning from heaven. He gives the seventy power over all evil. He celebrates his unique relationship with the father. He speaks of a fulfilment which the great ones of old had longed to see. Surely, we think, this is Jesus the superhero, striding through the world winning victories at every turn, able to do anything at all? And surely, we often think, this Jesus is remarkably irrelevant to our own lives, where we face problems and puzzles and severe tests
of faith, where despite our prayers and struggles things often go just plain wrong?
Luke has no intention of describing Jesus as Superman. The rest of his gospel makes that quite clear, and this passage fits in much better with his overall portrait than with the one we project back from our shallow modern culture. What we find here, in fact, is the unveiling of the true nature of the battle Jesus was facing and fighting.
He has now determined to go to Jerusalem, and a new note of urgency comes in as he sends the seventy ahead of him. The depth of this urgency appears in the discussion, with the seventy, of their role and mission. Jesus began his public career with a private battle against the real enemy; this battle will continue until its last great showdown, as the powers of darkness gather for their final assault (22.53).
We must remind ourselves who or what ‘the satan’ is in Jewish thinking. The word ‘satan’ literally means ‘accuser’, and ‘the satan’ appears in scripture as the Director of Public Prosecutions in God’s heavenly council (Job 1.6– 12; 2.1–7; Zechariah 3.1–2). At some point he seems to have overstepped the role, not only bringing unfounded accusations, but inciting people to do things for which he can then accuse them. Finally, in flagrant rebellion against God and his plans of salvation for the world, the satan seeks to pervert, distort and overthrow Israel, the chosen bearers of God’s promise, and to turn aside from his task Israel’s true Messiah, the bringer of fulfilment. He has gained enormous power because the world in general, and Israel’s leaders too, have been tricked by his cunning.
Jesus’ task is therefore not simply to teach people a new way of life; not simply to offer a new depth of spirituality; not simply to enable them to go to heaven after death.
Jesus’ task is to defeat the satan, to break his power, to win the decisive victory which will open the way to God’s new creation in which evil, and even death itself, will be banished.
So what did Jesus see, and what did it mean? ‘I saw the satan fall like lightning from heaven,’ he said. As the seventy were going about their urgent mission, Jesus in prayer had seen a vision, echoing the prophetic visions of the downfall of the ancient enemy (Isaiah 14.4–23; Ezekiel 28.1–19). Jesus had seen, in mystical sight, the heavenly reality which corresponded to the earthly victories won by the seventy. He knew, and could assure the seventy, that their work was indeed part of the great victory begun in the desert and to be completed on the cross. They must not imagine, though, that they can now sit back and enjoy their new powers. What matters is that God’s purpose is going forward, and that they are already enrolled in it. There is shortly coming a time, after all, when even the Twelve, even Peter, will be sifted like wheat by the satan, before the final victory can be accomplished (22.31–32).
In the same moment of vision and delight, Jesus celebrates what he realizes as God’s strange purpose. If you needed to have privilege, learning and intelligence in order to enter the kingdom of God, it would simply be another elite organization run for the benefit of the top people. At every stage the gospel overturns this idea. Jesus sees that the intimate knowledge which he has of the father is not shared by Israel’s rulers, leaders and self-appointed teachers; but he can and does share it with his followers, the diverse and motley group he has chosen as his associates. God, says St Paul, chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, the weak to shame the strong.
As Jesus goes on his way to fight the final battle in Jerusalem, he knows that this strange purpose is already being accomplished. At its heart is the creation of a new people: a people who recognize Jesus as God’s true son, the Messiah, and a people who through the work of Jesus are coming to know God for themselves as father. A people, in other words, who fulfil Israel’s destiny; a people who see and hear what prophets and kings longed to see and hear but did not.