It is easy to think of the early Jesus movement as having been a relatively small company consisting of the twelve disciples accompanied by a handful of women followers; after all, that’s the sort of picture we get from most of the movie versions of the gospel stories. This little company moves through the countryside, and though great crowds of people appear to hear Jesus teach and to seek his healing touch, when the sun sets it is a small handful of devoted followers who are left to share a meal around a fire and to bed down and sleep on the beach by the Sea of Galilee.
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Yet here midway through the Gospel according to Luke we have this account of Jesus sending “seventy others (to go) ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.” Seventy others; that’s a not inconsiderable number of people prepared to go on ahead of him, traveling lightly—“no purse, no bag, no sandals”—and proclaiming in word and deed the near presence of the Kingdom. That’s thirty-five teams of two people each, moving through the towns and villages clustered along the road toward Jerusalem, spreading word of this Jesus. Now we can begin to imagine why he might have been perceived as a threat by both the Roman and Jewish authorities… every time a Roman soldier or a defender of the religious old guard turned around, they’d be catching word of Jesus and his kingdom talk.
And make no mistake: his is a political threat. Kingdom talk in a land dominated by the Roman Empire can’t be anything but political. Kingdom talk amongst a people with a deep communal memory of the story of the Exodus, the reign of David, the promises of prophets like Isaiah, and the Maccabean revolt of the 160s BCE in which the Seleucid Empire was defeated and Jerusalem restored by revolutionary Jews… well, it is like an unlit keg of dynamite. It is dangerous talk. And Jesus knew it, which is why he spoke of sending the seventy “like lambs into the midst of wolves,” by which he meant not only the Roman soldiers and the hostile Judean leaders, but also all those ordinary people in all of those villages and towns dreaming of revolution; those whose lot would be cast with the Zealots.
And so as they move through these territories the message carried by these lambs in the midst of wolves is to be one of peace: “Whatever house you enter, first say, ‘Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person…” As his instructions continue, Jesus adds, “Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’” Healing and restoration as signs of the presence of the coming reign of God; so very different from the rattling of swords that typically accompanies the arrival of a political kingdom.
Still, there is a real urgency to his message. The word of peace Jesus challenges the seventy to carry with them is not one of mere sentimentality: “But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’” The kingdom of God has come near, and if you think that there is any real option to the vision of a peaceable kingdom being brought to you by these lambs in the midst of wolves—and ultimately by the very Lamb of God—it will not end well for you. In part this meant that if you continue to place your hopes in the sword rattling of the zealous revolutionary nationalists, it will mark your end. Which it did some thirty years later, as the Romans flattened Jerusalem, followed a decade on by the siege of Masada in which the final remnant of the Jewish revolutionary movement was destroyed.
Luke doesn’t say anything at all about how long these teams were out doing their work, just that they “returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, in your name even the demons submit to us!’” Even that which is spiritually destructive and distorting flees in the name of Jesus; something extraordinary is going on here. As David Jeffrey comments, “Jesus’s response produces one of the most remarkable of the Lord’s sayings: ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.’”
The utterance is arresting. What does it mean? It seems in the context that we should understand his statement as a clear indication that the effect of the apostolic ministry now established has been a severe blow to the power of the adversary… It is not that Satan now becomes inactive, but it is [citing Rene Girard] ‘rather the end of his false transcendence’.”
The lie has been exposed. And so Jesus continues, “See, I have given you authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy; and nothing will hurt you.” The authority to tread on snakes and scorpions, which shouldn’t be taken to mean that they—or we —are to be about doing impressive acts of snake handling… which is the way that verse has been combined with a brief passage in Mark (16:17-18) by the snake handling holiness churches that originated in the early 20th century in Appalachia, and which actually continue into our own day. Jesus was never a sensationalist in that manner; in fact, when tempted by the satan to do a sensationalist act as a demonstration of his status as Son of God, how does Jesus answer? “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
No, the image of treading on snakes and scorpions more surely picks up on two older images from the Hebrew scriptures: from Genesis 3:15, in which an abiding “enmity” between the snake and the human is shown—“the man will strike your head, and the snake shall strike his heel”; and from Deuteronomy 8:11-19, wherein Moses tells the people that their delivery from slavery has taken them through “an arid waste-land with poisonous snakes and scorpions,” and that it is only by God’s hand that they survived. It locates that image of snakes and scorpions in the context of the long covenant history, and it similarly locates all that Jesus is doing in announcing the Kingdom in that same long story.
“Nevertheless,” he continues, “do not rejoice at this, that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Sure, it must feel pretty impressive that in my name you have experienced this authority—an authority that none of them could have previously imagined—but that’s not the thing you should be celebrating. Celebrate the truth that your names are written in heaven. Which has little to do with someday escaping a world that is held in the grip of evil or just so full of sorrows as to be unbearable, as we float off as disembodied spirits fortunate enough to have our names written in some admission book at the doors of heaven. No, there is a much more robust thing at work here in these texts. In the words of N.T. Wright, what we need to see is that,
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.
Not an escape from a created world, but God’s new creation; not an escape through death from the limits of our physical bodes, but a defeat of death; not a flight from the evil which so corrupts and distorts, but its very banishment. To have your name “written in heaven” is to be a part of that reign already, called to be peaceable lambs in a world that believes it is always the wolves that win.