Bible Study from Calvary Chapel Newberg
with Tom Fuller
The Default Human Character
It would be very cool to see someone in their glorified state. That’s what Peter, James and John experienced on the Mount of Transfiguration, when they saw Jesus, Moses, and Elijah glowing with the glory of the next age. Not only would it be cool, it would have the effect of making you feel extra important and it would blunt you to the realities of this age—because you’ve seen a glimpse of the glories of the next one. Seeing the Coming King may have been a bit of a whip-saw for the men—going from Jesus confirming that He is the Messiah, to focusing on the cross instead of the crown and then following it up with an encounter with heaven. That last experience may have served to reinforce their desire for a political ruler instead of a Suffering Savior.
So as the men come back to earth physically, Jesus brings them back to earth mentally as well. At the bottom of the mountain they encounter the two default human characteristics that rule most of our thoughts and behaviors and show starkly why no human apart from the saving work of Jesus can stand before God pure.
What are those two characteristics? Conceit and Competition. Luke paints the picture through an encounter with a demon—which allows Jesus to describe those that will come into His kingdom—those that possess a character that is the opposite of conceit and competition.
37 – 41
Combine this with Matthew’s account (Matthew 17:14-18) and you get a good idea what happened. Jesus is up on the mountain and some of His disciples (we don’t know which—might not even have been the 9 who didn’t get to go on the field trip) try to perform an exorcism on the boy but are unsuccessful.
From Jesus’ response to the father’s statement that the disciples “couldn’t” drive the demon out—I presume His anger is with the attitude of self-reliance and refusal to cede all authority to Jesus. He says the generation is “unbelieving and rebellious”. The same attitude pervades this section through verse 50, and even to the end of the chapter.
In the face of true suffering, the disciples seem more enamored with their power than with actually helping the boy.
42 – 43a
A question often comes up when the boy’s symptoms are described: was this simply epilepsy? I don’t think so. Matthew’s account reveals that the boy was often thrown into fire or water—this is no ordinary seizure disorder but the mimicking of one. It’s not outlandish to assume that possession by a demon might bring about severe seizures both in terms of interaction in the brain synapses as well as the attempts of the boy to not let the demon control him.
Jesus recognizes that this is a demon, an unclean spirit, and He rebukes it. Not only is the demon gone, but it is not allowed to harm the boy, and Jesus hands him back to his dad cured.
What Luke doesn’t record is that the disciples come to Jesus in private and want to know why they couldn’t cast out the demon. Jesus replies that it is because of their “little” faith—then describes that if they had the faith of a mustard seed they’d be able to move mountains. It’s an odd statement because the mustard seed was known at the time to be the smallest seeds in the garden. So wouldn’t their “little” faith be enough? I think it has more to do with who you put your faith into, than the amount of confidence you have. That’s where the “name it, claim it” group errs. They say we are not healed because we didn’t have enough faith—didn’t believe enough. I don’t think that’s the point—I think we don’t trust enough that God has it in His hands. We don’t put ourselves in second place.
By the way—trusting in Jesus does mean you can move mountains—but think of it in terms of moving obstacles to the gospel out of the way, including Satan and his hoards, rather than getting stuff you want.
Jesus goes on to make the point that large crowds and popularity masks the “unbelieving and rebellious” nature of the people.
43b – 45
Again there is this whip-saw of conflicting information coming at the disciples. They now know for certain that Jesus is the Messiah. But the political power buster is not the role He is fulfilling here. He’s come to die, and in order for that to happen He has to be betrayed.
But the disciples are so focused on sharing in the power of the political Messiah that they don’t get the reality of the Suffering Savior. As humans we don’t get elevated to places of power in God’s kingdom, instead we have to die to ourselves and our own abilities and thrust ourselves on the mercy of God and trust in the strength of God.
Here is another mention of the reluctance of the disciples to ask clarifying questions other than “why couldn’t we do what we wanted” (self-focused). It wasn’t until after the resurrection that Jesus Himself would make all that happened clear (see the Road to Emmaus story in Luke 24:13-35).
So now the true nature of the disciples’ attitude comes out.
46 – 48
There seem to be three common themes in this section: a selfish attitude, effectiveness in ministry, and the position of a child. I think they are related. This isn’t the first time that the argument of who was greatest came up (Luke 22:24). It’s human nature of vie for supremacy. You may not realize it but unconsciously you size up the people in a room you’ve entered and determine where you are in the pecking order. Much of our activity that reveals our fleshly nature involves trying to move up in the order by putting ourselves over some and reaching up to others to raise our status by association.
So as an object lesson Jesus takes a little child and makes three statements:
- Welcome this child in My name and you welcome Me
- Welcome Me and you welcome the Father
- To be least actually means to be great in My kingdom
So here’s how I read this. Our default human nature is to compete for supremacy and declare our independence. “I don’t need anyone and I’m more important than you.” These two characteristics of the human heart are in opposition to God’s character.
The character of God is summed up in this statement: “God is love” (1 John 4:16). The “love” that characterizes God is agape love: self-sacrificing, other-centered affection. I am thinking that the disciples had an opportunity to show that kind of love towards the little boy who was possessed but chose instead to attempt to off show their own strength and ability apart from trusting in Jesus. Then they argued about who was more important and who would have the corner office next to Jesus in Jerusalem.
So Jesus is, in essence, saying that instead of looking up to raise your social standing you need to look up in dependence and humility and instead of looking out to see how important you are, to look out for how God can use you to bring healing in others.
Phil. 2:3 “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (ESV).
Eph. 2:8 “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift— 9 not from works, so that no one can boast. 10 For we are His creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them.”
See how do these two sections combat the kind of attitude the disciple’s engaged in? “Selfish ambition” and “conceit” are the two characteristics of the human heart apart from Jesus that we’re talking about. Instead of boasting how wonderful we are we need to relish in the grace of God—then go about “walking” in the good works Jesus has laid out for us, exhibiting that other-centered, self-sacrificing affection.
49 – 50
So finally the idea of competition comes back—this time from one of the three men who saw Jesus in His glory.
This is actually a little humorous. The other disciples failed at casting out a demon—yet John calls out an example of when someone who wasn’t in the inner circle succeeded where they had failed—yet these men tried to stop him.
So if someone doesn’t have the decoder ring and secret handshake—if they don’t join our group and follow our pecking order and our rules then they can’t be allowed to minister. Next time we’ll see John take this an illogical step further.
It’s so silly. Jesus says that you can’t know what works I’ve called others to walk in. You’re falling again into the default human behavior. The key here is “in Your name.” That was what I think the disciples here were missing. They weren’t trusting in Jesus, they wanted glory for themselves—so they were jealous when someone else had success by having the audacity to trust Jesus to do good works.
So how do conceit and competition enter into our lives and how can we exhibit the kind of character that is like the way normal people will act in heaven? First you must realize that you don’t get that character by trying really hard, reading lots of books—including the Bible—and then forcing yourself to not act certain ways and to make sure to act in certain others. That’s legalism and it gets you nowhere. The Lord said that the good stuff humanity does on their own amounts to polluted rags when compared to the goodness of God. So you can only get God’s goodness by receiving it as a free gift—a gift that comes by admitting your mistakes, and casting yourself on God’s mercy that He shows by placing the blame for your errors onto Jesus. He paid the price for your disobedience to God’s character by His death—and gives you eternal life with His new character by His resurrection.
But what happens is that we Christians find ourselves struggling with the same issues of conceit and competition all the time. That’s because we have in ourselves competing natures—the dying old nature and the growing new one. The old nature does not want to give way to the growing character of God and so will fight tooth and nail to maintain supremacy.
Let me give you some principals based on this section:
- Watch out for making it all about you (verses 38-41)
- How would you feel if no one knew what you’d done? (Matthew 6:3)
- Who is the real beneficiary here, your feelings, reputation, power, or the other (Phil 2:4)?
- Enlightened self-interest is till self-interest (it’s when you do something good because it makes you feel good or you subtly think you’ll be more likely to have a return favor – Luke 6:35)
- Focus instead on the needs of others, and seeking what you can do to benefit them, even if means you become less (verses 46 – 48)
- Watch out when you feel jealous and tribal (verse 49)
- Outsiders are met first with suspicion
- People who aren’t a part of your group, or don’t look, speak, or act like you are held off
- You find yourself talking down another ministry that is serving the Lord, but not in a way you would
- Focus instead on celebrating when Jesus is lifted up and people fall in love with Him and are healed, even if you don’t get any credit (verse 50)