I have been reflecting this Holy Week on a short verse of scripture about Jesus: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51, NRSV)
Lest you think more highly of me than you should, I want to confess that my memory is holey as a sieve, and the number of Scripture verses I can quote from memory is… Well, I can’t remember. Fortunately, I’ve learned to compensate by looking for key verses in their biblical context—the surrounding stories that anchor them in the arc of a larger plot.
Doing so with this verse, I realized that contrary to what I had “remembered,” my short verse isn’t poised at the beginning of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the reason we celebrate Palm Sunday and softly approach Good Friday. Rather, this scripture lives smack-dab in the middle of Jesus’ ministry of teaching, healing, exorcising demons, feeding thousands, training his disciples, and revealing his identity as the Messiah—in Luke chapter 9.
This re-discovery led me to wonder: Why, with so much action happening in Luke chapter 9, is this particular phrase fixed in my mind? And why do I find it so compelling?
The first 50 verses of Luke 9, in fact, remind me why I love Jesus and behold him in awe. Here’s the highlight reel.
In verses 1-2, Jesus “had called the Twelve together, he gave them power and authority to drive out all demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.”
In verse 9, Herod, the leader who beheaded John the Baptist, futilely tried to meet the new prophet known as Jesus. (Sorry, Herod. Jesus is occupied with the poor and lame.)
In verses 10-17, Jesus fed five thousand folks who were following him around, listening to his teaching and desperately seeking healing.
In verses 18-20, we have a little side drama. Jesus asked the disciples “Who do you say I am?” and Peter, that impetuous disciple who became known as “the rock,” answered “God’s Messiah,” affirming Jesus’ true identity.
Then the disciples expressed their desire to host a big party and invite everyone to worship Jesus as the Messiah. Jesus immediately quashed any ideas of partying, ordering the disciples to tell “no-one” who he is. Not only that, but Jesus also instructed them that in the future, he will “suffer many things;” he will be publicly rejected by all the leaders; and he “must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.” (Luke 9:21-22, NIV, paraphrased, italics mine)
If I were hanging out with the disciples back then, I imagine myself getting all tingly with excitement that I was in the “in” crowd, close enough to touch the Messiah who was going to deliver my country from all her enemies. Finally! Real deliverance from evil. But Jesus’ follow-up comments instead leave me gasping. Not only are terrible, disastrous things going to happen to him (something about the “third day” goes completely over my head), Jesus also has a challenging word for us: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24, NIV)
Lord, have mercy.
Luke doesn’t rest there. He takes us into another story, written with his journalistic sense of detail, “About eight days after Jesus said [these things], he took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray.” There the three disciples witnessed God’s presence descending on the mountain and heard God speak these words, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” (Luke 9:28-36, NIV) John, James, and Peter were struck speechless after this “transfiguration” experience; yes, even vocal Peter.
There’s still more in Luke 9—a dramatic exorcism, rebukes of disciples, etc.—but let’s get back to my starting verse, “As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” (The phrasing is slightly different here because I switched from the NRSV Bible to the NIV version to see it afresh.)
Jesus is “resolute,” resolved, undeterrable. Why does the image of his resolute walk cling to me, tenacious as lichen on granite?
I think it’s this. In the midst of the whirl of the world—the religious energy, the savage politics, people begging for healing, the masses needing feeding, the disciples’ ups and downs, mountaintop experiences, and the daily grind of living—Jesus knew exactly who he was and what he was about. God’s mountaintop declaration “This is my son, my chosen…listen to him,” was spoken aloud, I believe, for the disciples’ benefit, but it must have been a balm to Jesus as well. The word “chosen” is not clinical; it can also be translated as “beloved.” What a beautiful word. Jesus was beloved, a son who honored his Father and demonstrated God’s passionate love for the world through all the actions he took; in the process he continually thwarted peoples’ expectations—to their discomfort and dismay.
Just as Jesus went to that mountaintop expecting to meet with God, he journeyed toward Jerusalem knowing he would meet with death. An incredibly cruel death. And beyond that, miraculous resurrection from death. He knew both were in his path, and he resolutely journeyed to endure the one to achieve the other.
But I gain even more by looking at the surrounding scripture. I see that Jesus’ resolve was bounded by—and grounded in—hope, healing, and the equipping of his followers. This is in turn grounding for me, a person trying to figure out how to be a sincere follower every day. For as I follow Jesus through this crazy, noisy, messy world, I know I will go through trials, but with resurrection promised on the other side I can be more prepared to endure what needs to be endured with a sense of hope and encouragement.
Shall we not thank God that there is such wealth and wisdom secured in a book packed with more than we might ever be able to remember? I thank God for a verse—19 words—that I couldn’t quite place, nudging me into deeper inspection.
I pray to be more like Jesus in resolve and action… that “the God of hope will fill me with all joy and peace as I trust in him, so that I may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”1 As I labor may I remember to look forward to my own resurrection, whenever that might happen.
And I pray that we all may be re-“minded” to search out the phrases that stick like burrs in our brains, to dig into context, to grow in depth and breadth of understanding, to journey open-eyed through each week—beyond this hallowed Holy Week—digging deeper into the compelling stories God is weaving into each of our beloved lives—stories that make us who we are and show God’s enduring strength and love for the greater world.
1 paraphrased from prayer in Romans 15:13 (NIV)