Luke 9 - What does it mean to be great?

I have often marveled at how intellectually obtuse the disciples appear to be in their exchanges with Jesus. Such judgement is a bit rash, however, for several reasons.

Firstly, I doubt I would have been any quicker given the culture, education and upbringing I would have had if fate placed me in such a time & place.

Secondly, I often forget I have been given the incredible gift of Scripture and God’s Holy Spirit to equip me in so many ways. Hardly a fair comparison.

But there is a third, very significant reason why the disciples did not understand what Jesus was on about while they walked with him on earth: God prevented it.

That’s right, God himself prevented the disciples from understanding more than they could handle at certain times. The question is: why?

For the disciples, ‘understanding’ was rolled out progressively just as the revelation of the person & work of Jesus was revealed according to God’s predetermined timetable.

You get what you can bear
This concept of the disciples only being able to handle a certain amount of revelation is spoken to them by Jesus himself on at least one occasion.

I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. (John 16:12)

It’s as though the disciples are at a smorgasbord & Jesus is preventing them from stuffing themselves. After these words, Jesus promises the Holy Spirit who will “guide you into all the truth”. That is the time for the rest of the meal, but for now they will have to make do with a snack.

We know now that Jesus needed to spend much longer getting his disciples used to the idea that his ministry would culminate in his death & resurrection, not in slaying the Roman oppressors. Even then, the shock of his death shook the disciples to their core.

Only after Pentecost, seven weeks later, did the events of those past three years make sense.

At first his disciples did not understand all this. Only after Jesus was glorified did they realize that these things had been written about him and that these things had been done to him. (John 12:16)

Who is the greatest?
Luke 9 is a lengthy passage, but it is worth considering because it reveals a highly significant teaching of Jesus regarding the Kingdom of God.1 Because Luke tells of a number of seemingly unrelated events in this section of his letter, many assume they are random accounts of significant moments in the ministry of Jesus.

Perhaps the events of this chapter don’t all fit neatly into box, but I am convinced a main thread is running through this chapter: Jesus is Lord & those who wish to find true greatness must follow him in everything. Nothing extraordinary about that, but the way Jesus gets this point across is what makes this chapter unique I think.

Here is a synopsis of the events of Luke 9:

The 12 sent out (vv1-6) – Jesus proves he is in authority
Herod seeks Jesus (vv7-9) – earthly authorities take notice
Jesus feeds the 5,000 (vv10-17) – Jesus is the answer to the needs of the people
Peter’s confession (vv18-20) – at least one of the disciples realises Jesus is the messiah
Jesus predicts his death (vv21-22) – Now, how much do they understand about the messiah?
Pick up your cross and follow me (vv23-27) – Jesus reveals ‘death’ is the pathway all disciples must tread.
Transfiguration (vv28-36) – Three disciples now ‘see’ who Jesus is.
Jesus heals demon possessed boy (vv37-43) – The authority of Jesus and ‘the majesty of God’ revealed.
Jesus predicts his death (vv44-45) – Once more, the disciples are give a private lesson.
Argument about greatness (vv46-48) – The disciples don’t really get it at all.
Unknown disciple (vv49-50) – The one who is not against you is for you.
Samaritans reject Jesus (vv51-56) – Jesus heads for Jerusalem.
The cost of following Jesus (vv1-6) – Jesus’ understanding of what ‘greatness’ means is revealed.

It’s a jam packed chapter, that’s for sure, and I suspect because of that, the lessons we usually get from it tend to be isolated from the message as a whole. So, what is the message of this chapter? It is that the Kingdom of God is to be found in the person Jesus. There are only two kinds of people: those who are with him & those who are against him.

What each of the little stories gives us, is the application of this overall theme to the daily life of the disciples. They, after all, are the beneficiaries of most of Jesus’ teaching and represent the true followers of Christ. They are not the only followers of Christ, as they so rudely found out in verses 49 & 50, but they are origin of all disciples who would come after them in this Church age.

Jesus spent much of his ministry instructing these 12 men, but it is they and the Apostles who come immediately after, who take the gospel to the ends of the earth. There are Christians everywhere now, but it all started with Jesus and his 12 eclectic men.

The Kingdom of God
In the opening 20 verses of this chapter, Luke moves quickly through four extremely significant events: the 12 sent out on their first mission, Herod noticing a threat to his rule, Jesus feeding the 5000 and Peter’s confession of Jesus as ‘The Christ of God.’

It is beautifully put together. Jesus sends the 12 out having given them “power and authority over all demons and to cure diseases”. Think about that for a minute. This is no ordinary day for those 12 men. How would they know Jesus had the ability to do anything like this?

Partly, the answer would lie in the miraculous manifestations which would accompany them. They testified to this later (see v10), but also there would be massive rejection at times.

It’s worth repeating. Jesus gave them “power and authority” but this did not mean all men would accept their testimony. In fact it would often mean hostility. Suffering would become a major part of their life from this point onwards & Jesus wastes little time pointing that out.

First, however, Luke notes that Herod is quick to pick up on the waves being made in Galilee. “Who is this about whom I hear such things?” he asks (v9). Peter answers the question for us soon enough.

Next comes the miraculous feeding of the 5000, which Luke completes in just eight verses. There is no sermon to go with this, just the raw account of what happened. The real meaning of it is given by John in his gospel.

Jesus then said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, it was not Moses who gave you the bread from heaven, but my Father gives you the true bread from heaven. For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst. But I said to you that you have seen me and yet do not believe. (John 6:32-36)

The penny finally drops for Peter when Jesus manages to spend some time alone with the disciples after this event. “Who do the crowds say that I am?” It’s a good question considering what he’s just done for them, but especially in light of the fact that even his disciples can command authority from what even the common people know are demons at work, let alone cure illnesses.

The disciples answer that the crowds have a variety of opinions, which are more or less in line with what you might expect from people in their position.

Then he said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” And Peter answered, “The Christ of God.” (Luke 9:20)

Peter has worked out what all the evidence means: Jesus is the one whom God has sent to establish his Kingdom on earth. He is the Messiah! It’s a breakthrough moment, even though we know from reading on that the disciples did not really understand the significance.

In fact, as we shall see, Jesus needs to take far more time with the disciples to get his point across.

The Messiah’s mission
At this point, Jesus turns straight into an announcement of his impending death. The miracles have been pointing to something and now that the disciples know who, it is imperative that Jesus put before them a correct understanding of exactly what the mission of the Messiah is. He is to die.

The crux of the matter
As the dust is settling after Jesus reveals he must not only die but “be killed”, he jumps in with another pill too big to swallow.

And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. (Luke 9:23)

This, then, becomes the overriding image of a follower of Jesus & it is a lesson the disciples are very slow to learn. If you want to follow Jesus, you must think and act like a condemned criminal who is marching slowly, but surely to the place of execution.

This is a moment of fresh revelation for everyone. Until this moment, I seriously doubt any student of Scripture could have seen it coming. Victory comes through death; not only for the Messiah, but for his followers as well.

Jesus adds a paradox to this teaching:

For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:24)

Finding true life comes about as you proceed to the place of execution and actually die. And if that involves too much humiliation for you, then “of him will the Son of Man be ashamed when he comes in his glory” v26.

The disciples realise who Jesus is – now they see it
After this, three of the disciples are permitted to witness the extraordinary vision of the transfiguration. Not all of them; just Peter, James and John. Peter was the first to recognise who Jesus really was, now three of them get to see it without any ‘filter’ if you like.

The real Messiah was in view that day without any cryptic explanation blocking the way. And this is important because Jesus is about to shake the disciples with a very important lesson. The disciples have understood and have seen the real Jesus, but how well do they know his mission? And even more baffling will be the lesson about the disciples’ own status in the world.

Jesus follows the transfiguration up with yet another exorcism at which we are ironically told “all were astonished at the majesty of God,” (v43) but in reality, only three of them have actually seen the majesty of God and even they are not fully aware of how this majesty will be manifested in time.

Let these words sink into your ears
Once more Jesus gives a quick aside to his disciples:

Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men. (v44)

He’s starting to sound earnest, yet in the following verse we read that the disciples “did not understand this saying, and it was concealed from them, so that they might not perceive it.” (v45)

How fascinating. The true nature of the role of Jesus on earth was deliberately concealed from them, unlike the transfiguration & the knowledge that he was the Messiah.

Look at this: in Matthew’s account of the transfiguration, after Peter has made his confession, we read;

Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 16:17)

Then at the transfiguration, once again God pulls back the curtain and gives them an exclusive “vision” (v9) which they are to keep to themselves until after the resurrection.

Therefore, God opens their eyes to Jesus' true identity (the Messiah) and so they might see his glory (transfiguration), but when it comes to the death of Jesus, they are deliberately prevented from seeing the reality. Now that’s confusing!

Who is doing the concealing?
Most commentators I have read, do not really have much to say about this paradox. Leon Morris makes the suggestion that Satan was responsible.

But more importantly, it was concealed from them, which may mean that there was opposition from the forces of evil.2

I find that hard to swallow. The idea that Jesus was trying to tell the disciples something as profound as this, yet could not stop Satan intercepting the message, does not sit well with me.

I take the view of William Hendriksen who, after looking at the various theories, concludes that it was God himself who prevented the disciples understanding the teaching of Jesus at this time.

This answer, adopted by many interpreters, is probably the best. It by no means excludes the element of human responsibility, error, and obtuseness. As in several other Biblical passages, so here also, the overruling providence of God is recognised.3

But what I’m really looking for is the reason why God concealed the meaning. Alas, Hendriksen is of no help.

When the question is asked, “Why was it that God concealed from the Twelve the full meaning of the prediction found in verse 44?” it must be admitted that the answer has not been revealed.4

I don’t give up so easily. I have come to the conclusion that the events in the remainder of the chapter provide us with the answer. It’s been a long chapter already, but there is definitely a division at this point (ie after verse 45).

From here to the end of the chapter, Jesus walks the disciples through four events which are all connected to the point he is trying to make: he is the Messiah, but his mission is one of sacrifice and so will theirs be for in the Kingdom of God, conventional wisdom is turned on its head.

The true measure of greatness
The final section of Luke 9 begins with an argument the disciples had about which of them was the greatest. This is pretty funny to read about, especially when you add to it the famous Mother’s request in Matthew 20:20-21.

I don’t think Jesus saw the funny side of it, however, because it only revealed to him how utterly self-centred the disciples were. They, of course, were the product of their national upbringing and Jesus knows exactly where the problem is, so he leads them on  a little journey which is told to us rapidly over the remaining dozen or so verses of the chapter.

Remember, we are trying to figure out why God has concealed the full meaning of why “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” Perhaps some diagrams will help.

Diagram A represents what could be described as the disciples’ view of the world, as far as humanity’s relationship with God is concerned. The inner circle, not surprisingly, is Jesus with his disciples. Outside of that comes Israel, the chosen nation. The disciples, at this point, are not really sure who’s saved & who’s not, but they are working out that they are in an exclusive club.

The next step outward is where we find the Samaritans. As hated as they were, it has to be admitted that they are in the extended family, so they come next. If Israel was to play a local derby football match, it would be with the Samaritans.

Finally, on the absolute outer, are the gentiles. They are so far from God, they are to be pitied, except the disciples don’t really pity them because they are the enemy. Samaritans might be traitors, but gentiles are the opposite of God’s family. Rome is the typical example of what a gentile is.

Again, this attitude to the gentiles is somewhat understandable. Not only had the gentiles oppressed Israel in more ways than anyone could recall, but Jesus himself seemed to put distance between them (see for example Matt 10:5, 18:7 & 6:7).

However, what comes clearly through is that the disciples carried with them the baggage of their national culture which imprinted on their national DNA that the gentiles were the farthest from the kingdom.

This is reflected in the many occasions in the gospels where the Greek word for gentile (ethnos) is often rendered ‘pagan’ or ‘heathen’ because that is what was usually meant when the word was used. ‘Gentile’ became a generic word for someone who is far away from the Kingdom of God.

But this understanding of the state of play is far more complicated than the average Israelite. Their view was more like Diagram B in which Yahweh is with his people and everyone else is outside the city walls, including the Samaritans. Even though they lived in the land and had an ounce of Jewish blood in them, they were not pure enough to be in the fold.

Jesus, however, had a far simpler view of the world. As far as he was concerned, there were only two kinds of people: those who were for him & those who were against. Diagram C illustrates this.


This model is expressed in several ways throughout the gospels. In Luke 9, as we have just seen, it is ‘the one who is not against you is for you.’ v50.

In one chapter alone, John 8, Jesus puts it several ways to illustrate the point:

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” v12

“You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world.” v23
“The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever.” v35
 “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” v47

This is further expressed throughout the New Testament as we read about this age & the age to come, those who are for God or against him, with the Church or persecuting it, producing good or bad fruit, true teacher or false teacher, faithful or unfaithful.

I suspect this is one of those cases where once you have discovered the pattern, you see it all through Scripture. Jesus gave his disciples a very simple and clear view of how it all worked: you were either with him or you were outside the Kingdom of God.

Crossing over
What the disciples constantly had problems with is working out where Israel fitted into the whole scheme of things. Think about the day Jesus was about to ascend to heaven. After all that had happened, what is the burning question they need answering?

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)

Jesus had been trying to give them as simple a model as you can get: you were either for him or against him, regardless of your ancestral origin. That is all they needed to concern themselves with.

How Israel fitted in was left to Paul to explain & he did this several times, but nowhere more clearly than Romans 11. God still had his eye on Israel (Rom 11:1) and after the current period of gentile gathering is complete (Rom 11:25), a remnant from Israel will be saved as well (Rom 11:25).

The concealment revealed
Having considered the passage in detail, I think a reason emerges as to why God prevented the disciples from fully understanding the meaning of, “The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men.” It has to do with their understanding of the Kingdom of God and Israel’s place in it.

The disciples had the basic understanding that Israel would eventually rule the world again. Why not, seeing as the messiah would rule?

The problem with this is that it would not be national Israel who would rule with the Messiah, but the Church and the disciples were not ready to understand this. As we have seen, even as Jesus was about to be lifted up to heaven, they still enquired about Israel’s role. They would have to wait until Pentecost and even then, they would grow in understanding, as we all do.

In order to prepare them for this, Jesus leads the disciples through a series of lessons designed to explain how the Kingdom of God is made up.

Here is the picture which emerges: firstly, there is God himself who has placed his Son on the throne. Then there is a great multitude who are ‘in Christ’. This flock is made up of Jews, Samaritans & Gentiles. No longer must they regard people based on their ancestry, but on their relationship to Christ.5

There will be some who seem right for the Kingdom who will prove to be far from it (cf Matt 7:22) and there will be others who do not have anything like the right pedigree who will get the tick of approval (see for example Paul’s use of Hosea in Romans 9:25: “Those who were not my people I will call ‘my people’.”)

God deliberately gave Peter the understanding that Jesus was the Christ; he deliberately gave Peter, James & John a vision of Jesus transfigured and he deliberately did not allow them to fully grasp what Jesus meant when he told them he was about to be killed.

All this was due to the intricate nature of his timetable. From a human perspective, it is possible some of the disciples may have been tempted to turn away upon hearing this news. And if we believe God needed to miraculously preserve them so they did not, then I would say verse 45 is evidence of him doing just that.

Secondly, it is important to realize the central part the Holy Spirit plays in a believer’s life. Peter needed intervention from God to understand who Jesus was. The mere death of Jesus could be understood by anyone, but exactly how this proved he was the Messiah could not be understood by anyone without the Spirit of God. So, the disciples had to be given understanding in stages.

Finally, the disciples had completely the wrong idea of what greatness was. It is obvious they thought of a military uprising as Jesus’ modus operandi and they were jostling for positions; a bit like Joab & Abner of old.

The best way for them to gain understanding about greatness was to watch Jesus in action. And this would bring them face to face with death: his death and eventually their own.

And he said to all, "If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it. (Luke 9:23-24)


1. The terms ‘Kingdom of God’ and ‘Kingdom of heaven’ are interchangeable, but  only Matthew uses 'Kingdom of Heaven'.  It seems as though Matthew, writing for a mainly Jewish audience, preferred ‘heaven’ because it is likely saying ‘God’ would prove a stumbling block to Jews who took precautions not to go anywhere near the word. ‘Kingdom of God’ is found in all four gospels plus several New Testament letters. It is also interesting to note Jesus never uses the term “Kingdom of God” of the Old Testament era, but only of the time marked by his arrival & onwards. For a very thorough article on the nature of the Kingdom of God, see Geerhardus Vos, The Kingdom of God at

2.  Morris, L. 1974, Luke, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, IVP, p175 (emphasis in original).

3. Hendriksen, W, 1978, Luke, Baker Publishing Group, p517.

4. Hendriksen, W, 1978, Luke, Baker Publishing Group, p518.

5. It is significant that Jesus even incorporates this threefold view of the world when he answers the question of when he will restore the kingdom to Israel. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) This does not mean Jesus himself regarded the Samaritans as outcasts or farther from the kingdom than anyone else, but is an indication that the Jews needed particular instruction regarding the status of Samaritans. I also consider this to be the reason the conversion of Samaritans is given so much space in the book of Acts (see ch 8 & 11).