It is so easy to substitute an idol for Jesus. Our false self demands it. Denying that false self daily, staying on the narrow path is an arduous and intentional process. Made even more so by our ability to take good things and make them our idols. We have to be wary of the space that we are allowing everything except Jesus to have in our lives.
Nowhere is this more subtle than in the area of ministry – doing things for Jesus, as his representative. It is only degrees of separation to go from having an identity in Christ to having an identity in doing things for Christ. The former is secure and stable, rooted in the truth of the Gospel – that we are chosen, loved and saved by God himself. In the latter our perceived worth to God becomes highly dependent on our own performance.
As I lived this, it was so easy to justify my logic: since God made me a pastor and gave me these opportunities for service, success in ministry equalled rightness with God. It is so easy for the heart to be deceived, even by good things.
With this sense of the tug of the false self, we’re going to look in on Jesus in Luke 10 as He is sending out 72 disciples in pairs to every town that He was about to visit. I picture the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where the imperial destroyer is sending probes in every direction looking for the rebel base. Jesus was sending these pairs out for reconnaissance – to prepare the way for His coming. After some instruction, 36 pairs of disciples, who were probably at the same time nervous and excited, set off on their work of service, prepared in advance for them to do.
In verse 17, when they return here is how the scene is described: “The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.“
They had achieved ministry success! Brimming with confidence, barely able to contain their excitement, they return to joyfully tell Jesus about the success they had achieved. They had moved into enemy territory, made an offensive, and seen the product of their faith. A response from the spiritual world. Demons submitting.
We are left to imagine each scene. People rejoicing at the healing, wonder in these towns at the power of these pairs of followers of Jesus, probably celebration, promises, and pats on the back. And as the disciples report back to Jesus, breathless with their excitement and enthusiasm, ready to tackle the entire Roman empire you can probably imagine what response they were hoping for from their Leader.
“Well done! You are finally getting it. The demons fleeing represents real progress. Soon we’ll have more followers than we can handle. This is a turning point in establishing the kingdom.” Or some such words or praise and confidence. But Jesus’ response is starkly different, talking about lightening, snakes and scorpions, and containing these words as part of His response:
However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.
In effect, what Jesus is teaching them is to not find joy in the results. Circumstances will change like the weather. Identity based on success or failure is one that is destined to be tossed about; always questioning and never certain. Yes the spirits submitted, but don’t let that be the source of your joy or your praise to God. Success is fleeting, results can be deceptive. Maybe He is preparing some for the time when the cause of Christ may be all but abandoned by most of those who are presently celebrating it.
Instead, rejoice in the one thing that will not change. Their names are written in heaven. God’s love is secure and not capricious. Whether encountering success or trial, the ink of heaven will not fade.
God is not in love with us because of our performance on His behalf. Christ is not betrothed to His bride because He lacks or needs, thus causing us to worry about what happens in the event that we outlive our usefulness to Him. Rather, God loves us for our benefit and we are to rejoice in our future restoration.