Updated: Mar 4, 2021
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Luke 9:18-27
We have reached the first peak of Luke's Gospel -- the revelation that Jesus is indeed the Messiah of God. But Jesus must use this time to correct the many misunderstandings about who the Messiah actually is. Today, we are surrounded by people who don't really know who Jesus is or what Jesus did for them. We have to correct that. But that has to start with us.
“But you,” he asked them, “who do you say that I am?” Luke 9:20
Getting Started: Things to Think About
Heading Toward a Post-Christian South
The drive behind our passage this week is Jesus' question, "Who do the crowds say that I am?" It's very relevant. Think about people you know (Christians and non-Christians) -- what do they think about Jesus? Who do they think Jesus is?
People in the South seem to believe that everyone knows the right answer to who Jesus is. That's very much not true. Here are some of the findings from "The State of Theology 2020" (by Lifeway Research and Ligonier Ministries):
The one true God is a Trinity (Father/Son/Spirit) - 72% of Americans agree
Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God - 55% agree
Jesus was a great teacher, but not God - 51% agree
Jesus will return to judge all people - 62% agree
Jesus is the only source of salvation - 60% agree
Check out their website to learn more! But the findings are weird. As in, some of the beliefs held (like those listed above) are mutually exclusive. It makes no sense that people believe in the Trinity and also that Jesus is not God. I think that's their point -- people today don't understand basic Bible truths anymore. The "crowds" have no idea who Jesus really is.
But let me get to where I'm going with this. You probably weren't that surprised by the above findings. But let me isolate responses from people living in the South:
The one true God is a Trinity (Father/Son/Spirit) - 75% agree
Jesus is the first and greatest being created by God - 58% agree
Jesus was a great teacher, but not God - 53% agree
Jesus will return to judge all people - 66% agree
Jesus is the only source of salvation - 65% agree
Basically, people living in the South don't believe all that differently from people living anywhere else in our country.
That led me to another Lifeway article that was published a few weeks ago called "The Vanishing Bible Belt". That author called our attention to a series of Barna surveys that have traced the decline of Christianity in our country (but with a twist that hits home).
In 2009, 82% of people in the South identified as Christian.
In 2009, 70% of people out West identified as Christian.
In 2019, 70% of people in the South identified as Christian.
In 2019, 60% of people out West identified as Christian.
Looking at this and other data, she made the point that the belief profile of people in South is about what it was out West ten years ago. So, if we want to know what the South will look like in ten years, we just have to look out West today. *shudder*
Barna has developed a metric called "Post-Christian". Basically, if a person meets nine (9) of these criteria, they are verifiably, very much not a Christian:
Do not believe in God
Identify as atheist or agnostic
Have never made a commitment to Jesus
Not born again
Disagree that faith is important in their lives
Disagree that the Bible is accurate
Believe that Jesus committed sins
Have not prayed to God (in the last week)
Have not donated money to a church (in the last year)
Have not attended a Christian church (in the last 6 months)
Do not feel a responsibility to “share their faith”
Have not read the Bible (in the last week)
Have not volunteered at church (in the last week)
Have not attended Sunday school (in the last week)
Have not attended religious small group (in the last week)
Bible engagement scale: low
(They call it "post-Christian" because the regions used to be identified as Christian. There are some redundancies in there, but that's so they can eliminate confusion, and that's why you have to meet 9 criteria).
There are twenty (20!) metro areas in the US where at least half of the population is post-Christian. (Not surprisingly, 17 of those are West Coast and New England.) I also wasn't surprised to see Austin up there at 48%. I was surprised to see Atlanta and Houston at 38%. And it's not just these numbers -- it's the rate at which they are increasing. The previous ranking was in 2017. So, for example, Atlanta increased from 35% to 38%. Columbia increased from 25% to 34%. In 2017, the 100-ranked metro was at 12%. In 2019, the 100-ranked metro was at 32%(!!!). Our country, even the South, is rapidly becoming non-Christian.
The acceleration is going to be generationally driven (as you might have guessed):
(that table comes from a Pew Research article I've referenced before). In other words, this trend isn't slowing down. And it can explain everything from church attendance to election results.
So, there's your opening topic. Who do the crowds say Jesus is? The crowds are a mess. That's why it's all the more important to be able to answer "who do *you* say I am?". If we are to be a light in this generation, we need to know. We need to get that right.
Turn this topic into a challenge. Divide into two groups. Have one group play the role of people who don't know anything about Jesus except what they've seen on tv. Have the other group play the role of church members who have grown up in church (note: this doesn't mean they have all the answers!). Have the non-church members throw out a statement about Jesus. Have the church members evaluate that statement and try to correct it (if it's wrong). Look for these outcomes:
How good a job do the church members do at "explaining" Jesus?
How right are the church members?
How do the non-church members respond? (How testy does it get?)
It's not the easiest thing to explain Jesus to someone who only knows half-truths about Him. And if we aren't in the habit of doing it, it can be hard to know what to say.
This Week's Big Idea: The World Has Changed; We Must Adapt
Rather than introduce yet another major topic, let me just double-use the introduction. In the "Vanishing Bible Belt" article, the author gives us several things to think about. How do you talk about salvation with a person who doesn't know anything about Jesus? How do you explain Jesus to someone who doesn't believe in God? How do you explain heaven to a person who doesn't believe in an eternal soul?
Here's my favorite observation from that article. I have always liked the question "if you were to die, do you know for sure that you would go to heaven?" as a gospel conversation fixture. But when Wheaton College did a survey in 2016 of unchurched Americans, they discovered that 40% had never even worried about that question. In other words, it might not be the most useful hook for a gospel conversation after all.
So, we need to remove all assumptions from our methods. We need to approach things as if we live in the New Testament era where the people around us know absolutely nothing about the Bible, God, Jesus, any of it. Stop for a moment and think about how that might affect the way we try to reach our community.
This article mentioned two specific strategies that churches in the South should consider as they realize how far away from Christianity their community may have drifted:
We need to be open, honest, and direct about cultural issues. We might believe that it is very obvious that the Bible is against racism and sexism and domestic violence and the rest, but our community might not know that. (Especially if they are getting their understanding of Christianity from social media!) We need to know what's important to our community and give a clear, gracious, humble word from God about it. Our community needs to know that the God we serve and the Bible we read has something invaluable to say about all of these matters.
That leads directly to the other strategy: know and engage your community where they need you. If our communities are changing, we need to do the work to understand how they're changing and where we can inject ourselves in a way that is helpful and meaningful. As Marcus said last Sunday, it cannot be a "if you build it they will come" mentality any more; we have to "go" -- which means we have to know where to go.
I always encourage all of our Sunday School classes to have a ministry or mission they commit to, and it's always great to see the cool things you guys are doing in our community. Well, that's exactly what this article wants us to do. Be involved. Be connected. And be looking for ways to let the truth about Jesus make a difference.
Where We Are in Luke
Everybody recognizes that there is a major shift in the Gospel of Luke at 9:51:
When the days were coming to a close for him to be taken up, he determined to journey to Jerusalem.
And then the next 10 chapters take us on a journey with Jesus from Galilee to Jerusalem.
But the rest of chapter 9 sits in between those major sections and basically summarizes and escalates the major themes of the first part of Luke.
9:1-12 -- Jesus sends out the Twelve for the first time
9:10-17 -- Jesus feeds the 5,000 as the new and better Moses
9:18-20 -- Peter declares that Jesus is the Messiah
9:21-27 -- Jesus reveals that He must suffer and die
9:28-36 -- The Transfiguration reveals that Jesus is Messiah and God
9:37-42 -- The demon-possessed boy indicates the opposition to Jesus
9:43-50 -- The disciples still completely misunderstand Jesus
This great Bible Project video uses the Parable of the Prodigal Son as the focal text for understanding this section of Luke -- I found it extremely helpful.
In summary, this chapter is about the disciples' opportunity (and failure) to understand who Jesus is and what Jesus came to do. He did come for sinners. His arms are open to the crowds. We covered the parallel passage in Matthew back in 2017:
(You will quickly note differences between Matthew's and Luke's accounts -- the things they did and did not include. We will address them below!)
But those crowds today may not care about Jesus. If you used my challenge idea above, that can be your foundation for this transition into the passage.
Is it easier to talk to someone about Jesus who knows something about Jesus and seems to like Jesus -or- someone who is negative or even antagonistic about Jesus? Why?
This week, Jesus challenges us to be bold and faithful in our witness for Him, regardless of how popular our message is. The world around us is going to get more and more sour to our message -- how will we let that affect us?
Part 1: Confess Him (Luke 9:18-20)
18 While he was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, “Who do the crowds say that I am?” 19 They answered, “John the Baptist; others, Elijah; still others, that one of the ancient prophets has come back.” 20 “But you,” he asked them, “who do you say that I am?” Peter answered, “God’s Messiah.”
Everything in Luke's Gospel has been leading to this moment: all of those miracles, all of those teachings, they reveal that Jesus is indeed the promised coming Messiah. We cannot overstate how important that declaration is. (Note: the next few sections of Luke clarify for us that the disciples still misunderstood who the Messiah was.)
Matthew notes that they were near Caesarea Philippi, which is about as far away from Jerusalem as you can reasonably get. It's a pagan area with many shrines to false gods, which is probably the occasion for this question of "who is Jesus among these other gods?". Every answer given is a prophet. So, much like today, the thought was that Jesus was a great prophet (and nothing more). (We talked about John the Baptist a few months ago. The disciples also probably had in mind the rumor floating around that Luke mentioned in 9:7.)
(Note: why would Luke not mention Caesarea Philippi? Mainly because he wanted to make very clear the connection between the miraculous feeding -- and its connection with Moses -- and Jesus' intimate relationship with God -- see below -- and Jesus being the Messiah.)
Understand this: Jesus isn't worried about popular opinion. But He knows the disciples are, so He uses this question to shift to the much more important question: "what I really want to know is who you say I am". And that's still the most important question for us today -- someone else's faith will not make us right with God.
When I covered this in Matthew (see link above), I used the "masked man" illustration, which is a fun way to talk about "secret identities". How do programs handle when a person is unknowingly talking to the "hero" (like Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent)? There's usually some kind of a wink to the audience, right? Well, what's happening in our passage is the reverse of that. The disciples know they're talking to the "hero" of some sort, but they think he's, I don't know, Green Lantern or someone like that.
(Here's the problem with using the "hero-secret-identity" illustration -- the obvious thing to say is that the disciples thought Jesus was someone like Green Lantern, but in reality He was Superman. But that does not work. Zach Snyder really tried to make Superman an actual Messiah in those movies, but Superman is nothing compared with the Son of God.)
Peter gets it right. Jesus is the Messiah sent from God. (The Greek word Christ is the equivalent of the Hebrew word Messiah. Both words mean "anointed one".) I'll talk more about "Messiah" below. The point is that Peter was on the right track. But as the next few passages in Luke make clear, the disciples (and everybody else) misunderstood who the Messiah was, what God anointed the Messiah to do!
[Brief aside and teaching moment. After you clarify the important doctrinal teachings in these verses, wheel everybody back around to the first phrase: "while He was praying in private". Luke above all the Gospel writers focused on Jesus' prayer life. In the parallels, only Luke mentions Jesus praying in 3:21, 5:16, 6:12, 9:28, 11:1, 22:41, 23:34, 23:46. What does that say to us? That prayer is integral to Jesus' identity as it pertains to the new community of Christ-followers. If we want to follow Jesus, we need to be in the habit of praying.]
Aside: The Messiah
There are plenty of great resources about the Messiah. Here's a great video:
In the Old Testament, kings were seen as God's anointed (1 Sam 16:6, 1 Ki 1:39, etc.). But as they failed, and especially when Israel was captured and no longer allowed to have a king, the message about the Messiah (through the prophets) evolved to note this idea of rejection and suffering, but still kept the idealism of an eternal ruler for Israel.
In Jesus' day, the Jews had basically decided that the Messiah would be a glorious, victorious, unconquerable ruler who would vanquish the enemies of God (i.e. the enemies of Israel). The disciples could not wrap their heads around a Messiah who would suffer. It ran contrary to everyone's assumptions.
[Note: I heard someone explain that this was the real reason for the "Messianic Secret" in the Synoptics -- not so much that Jesus was hiding Himself, but that He was dissociating Himself from the made-up "Messiah" of everyone's imagination. He worked very hard not to be associated with privilege or lordship. Here's a word from the Holman Bible Dictionary: "Jesus tried to instill in their minds the prospect that the road to His future glory was bound to run by way of the cross, with its experience of rejection, suffering, and humiliation."
In summary, this section in Luke is about Jesus correcting the disciples' false imaginations about who the Messiah would be.
Part 2: Accept His Resurrection (Luke 9:21-22)
21 But he strictly warned and instructed them to tell this to no one, 22 saying, “It is necessary that the Son of Man suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and be raised the third day.”
Everything I said above is the reason why (I believe) Luke went straight to this declaration from Jesus, bypassing the discussion in Matthew about Peter as the "rock", and the gates of hell, and the foundation of the church, and all that. That was a key theme for Matthew. But for Luke, the idea of the upside-down kingdom is paramount -- "the first shall be last" -- and so he bypassed that topic. (In defense, Luke would illustrate all of those truths in his book of Acts.)
This particular phrasing indicates that Jesus was more worried about keeping His distance from the false assumptions about the Messiah than anything else. Once it got out that He was the Messiah, the people would immediately try to make Him their king (and they did! John 6:15). This "secret" was about giving time to teach the truth about the Messiah and not reinforce the wrong opinions floating among the Jews. It's certainly not that people could thwart Jesus' plan! But His plan included it being very clear that He died for the sins of the people. If He died as a political/military leader, He would be made a martyr, and His message would be obscured behind much nonsense.
[Big teaching point:] This is the first time in the Gospel that Jesus allows Himself to be called the Messiah. It is immediately followed by the first time in the Gospel that Jesus says anything about His own death. (This is true of each Gospel, considering their parallels.) So, from Luke's perspective, Jesus thought it was critical to correct the misunderstandings about being the Messiah. The phrase "it is necessary" (dei) is a fulfillment formula that Luke used regularly to establish that whatever was about to be said fulfilled true Old Testament prophecy. In other words, Jesus wasn't reinventing the Messiah -- He was being the Messiah that the Old Testament had clearly predicted. Everybody else just missed it.
This usage of "Son of Man" validates everything we said before about Jesus using the phrase in a divine, Messianic way (re: Daniel 7:13-14), as opposed to a generic way of identifying just another dude.
Jesus specifically mentions "elders, chief priests, and scribes". That's not a list you want to be on. To be fair, He's not necessarily saying that everyone considered to be a Jewish elder rejected Jesus. John specifically mentions Nicodemus and Joseph as two who opposed the other Jewish leaders. But in general, the leaders of the Jewish people (elders), particularly their priestly leaders (high priests) and religious leaders (scribes), would reject Jesus, which would lead to His execution. But again, it is necessary for this to happen this way.
If you've been reading through the Bible with us, you recently re-read the instructions about the "scapegoat" during the Day of Atonement feast (Num 29). This points us back to Leviticus 16 and the pair of goats that would suffer for the sins of the people -- one to be slaughtered and its blood used to "cleanse" the nation, and the other to be sent away into the wilderness "carrying" the sins of the people. We also re-read the instructions about the Passover lamb (Num 28), and its slaughter to make atonement for the people. God's instructions were for the priests to make those sacrifices. And indeed, the priests were the ones to sacrifice Jesus. And they did so knowingly and intentionally. They had to oppose and reject Jesus the Messiah as their part in the drama of sin and forgiveness that God had instituted all the way back on Mount Sinai.
But don't shortchange the good news! When Jesus talks about His death, He follows it with news of His resurrection. Luke repeats this formula many times: 9:44, 17:25, 18:31, 24:7, 24:46. Yes, this makes the disciples' behavior on Easter morning quite confusing, but it must be said that Jesus always gave them hope when He talked about His death.
For our part -- here's what we want to take home from this: it is one thing to know who Jesus is in name ("Jesus is Lord" or "Jesus is the Son of God" or "Jesus is Savior" are phrases that are regularly thrown around in our culture), but it is another thing to understand who Jesus is. (And as the next section explains, it is yet another thing to be willing to follow Jesus.) Do you really know who Jesus is? Do you understand what Jesus came to do for you -- for us all? Do you believe the words we use to describe Jesus (Lord, Savior) and desire to commit your life and eternal soul to Him?
This would be a good time to talk about the difference between what "the crowds" say about Jesus and what we should believe about Jesus. What are those fundamental truths about Jesus that every Christian should agree on? (If you used the challenge discussion above, this would be your time to correct anything said wrongly about Jesus.)
Part 3: Follow Him Unashamedly (Luke 9:23-27)
23 Then he said to them all, “If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. 24 For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it. 25 For what does it benefit someone if he gains the whole world, and yet loses or forfeits himself? 26 For whoever is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and that of the Father and the holy angels. 27 Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the kingdom of God.”
Just as Luke skipped the discussion between Jesus and Peter about being "the rock", Luke also skips their discussion about what Peter thinks of the idea of Jesus suffering. Why? To streamline the connection between these major concepts: Jesus is the Messiah, the Messiah must suffer, those who follow the Messiah must be willing to suffer. Everything Matthew shared is true and important, but it wasn't Luke's priority.
Here's a great exercise. Take two parallel passages (in this case, Luke 9 and Matthew 16) and put them side-by-side. It's obvious that they're similar, but they're not the same. What are the differences, and why do you think they might be different?
Jesus likely said even more than what was recorded, and the editing process leads to the subtle differences. What do you notice?
Luke includes "daily"
Luke focuses on "ashamed" rather than "reward"
Luke talks about the "kingdom of God" rather than the "Son of Man's kingdom"
What else? Why the differences?
Luke seems to be focusing more on identity. He has been relentless on the true identity of the Messiah, and so he also hammers the identity of a Christian. What can you identify about the Christian life from these words?
It's a daily thing.
Following Jesus is a kind of death -- certainly a death to the world.
Self-preservation cannot be a primary motive.
Rejection will happen.
Regrettably, it looks like we are going to have plenty of opportunity to find out just how committed we are to Jesus in the face of opposition. There are dark days ahead. But that's nothing for us to fear! One day, Jesus is going to return, and He is going to judge the world according to what they have done. Do we live in light of that reality, or are we afraid of what the culture around us might do or say.
How are we doing in this "deny ourselves and take up our cross daily" identity?
The problem is not trying to "live our best life" -- the problem is when we conclude that our best life does not involve denying ourselves and faithfully following Jesus, whatever the cost.
And then there's verse 27. Luke makes its meaning even more clear than Matthew. In the very next verse, Luke says:
28 About eight days after this conversation, he took along Peter, John, and James and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white.
In other words, when Jesus talked about "seeing the kingdom of God", He was talking about Himself. On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, John and James saw the kingdom. They saw Jesus as King.
For this, we have to realize that the kingdom of God is not a place -- it is God's reign over His creation. In many ways, it is already here and happening. But in some ways, it won't be fulfilled until Jesus' return.
But here's the point: we can trust Jesus and everything He said. All of His commands, all of His promises, everything is trustworthy. We must choose to follow Him, whatever the cost, but we do so knowing that He will not be ashamed of us when He returns.
Closing Thoughts: Being a Disciple of Jesus
One of the priorities of Sunday School is making disciples. That's also one of the priorities of First Baptist Church as a whole. But what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
On our website, we describe a disciple as someone who thinks, acts, and is like Jesus. Although there's no way to put that into a formula, we have tried to summarize it like this:
What do we do with this chart?
How well do we know what those concepts means?
How well do we reflect them in our day-to-day life?
If you have time at the end of group time, pick one or two of those concepts and talk about them. How do you struggle living them out? What specific step do you intend to take this week to do better? Encourage the people around you to do the same.
Here are some articles we have that might help: