Who is Jesus: The 4 acts of Luke 9

Luke 9 presents us with an unfolding narrative concerning the identity of Jesus Christ. The plot unfolds in 4 acts. Each act has its main protagonists that speak from their particular vantage point.

First, we find the character of Herod the Tetrarch. He speaks from the vantage point of the empire, royalty and ruling class. Second, we find the crowds that followed Jesus around. They speak from the viewpoint of the general population and offer us insights about what the consensus would have been about Jesus among the populist. Third, we find the disciples; those who walked closer to Jesus and saw his mission unfold experientially. Finally, we see the person of God. God speaks from God’s own vantage point and Luke seems keen to register God’s self as an active participant in Jesus’ mission and a credible source in revealing his identity.

What I see in Luke 9 are different layers of perception placed by the evangelist. The intent is to project Jesus’ reach into all the social strata that were important for his target readers. What I find interesting is that Luke does not seem worried about including what the Jewish religious authorities thought about Jesus, although later in the Gospel, Jesus’ authority will surface as a point of contention (Luke 20:2).

With all these particulars in mind, let us look into each act of this unfolding drama and piece together a complete picture of Jesus’ identity and mission.

Herod the Tetrarch

Luke 9 opens with Jesus instituting the twelve apostles as ambassadors of the Kingdom of God; a Kingdom of which Jesus himself was the Messiah. The Apostles then go around Galilee declaring this new Kingdom, which seems to catch the attention of the ruling class. We read, “Herod the tetrarch heard about all that was going on” (Luke 9:7). Herod’s inquiry about Jesus comes in verse 9 with much intrigue, “I beheaded John. Who, then, is this I hear such things about?” Perhaps another way of phrasing the question could be, “I beheaded the last prophet in the land who dared to rise against me. Who now is this new dissident?”

Jesus’ messianic mission seems unknown to the ruling class at this point of his ministry. However, when Jesus institutes the Twelve and sends them out, he seems to position himself against the empire. To know why the inquiry is so relevant to this passage one must understand who was Herod the Tetrarch himself. He was the son of Herod the Great, an infamous king who ruled around the time Jesus was born. We know from the Gospels that Herod the Great ordered a great massacre of young boys throughout Judea upon learning that a new king of the Jews had been born.

His authority was unquestionable. Herod the Great had been appointed King of Jews by Roman senate and after a series of brutal battles, he instituted his own dynasty with the full backing of the Roman Empire. Herod was a brutal and ruthless leader. Historians describe him as “a madman who murdered his own family and a great many rabbis”, “the evil genius of the Judean nation” and one “who was prepared to commit any crime in order to gratify his unbounded ambition”.

Herod Antipas, the tetrarch, would have grown in this type of household. Like his father, his mission was to protect and perpetuate the dynasty against any threat. Jesus’ messianic ministry would have put him under the category of political dissident. Also like his father, Herod Antipas would later seek to kill Jesus (Luke 13:31), thus explaining why he was “trying to see Jesus” (Luke 9:9).

What I find in this first act is that Jesus’ identity and ministry was very public. Jesus became a dissident to the ruling class of his time. His movement had become influential. The focus of the main protagonist here, Herod, was to protect the status quo. He wanted freedom from any threat that could weaken his rule. Little Herod was just like Herod the Great who came before him, he had a dynasty to protect. Therefore, he was mindful of the past, used ruthless violence in the present in order to preserve his future as ruler of his realm.

Little Herod was just like Herod the Great who came before him, he had a dynasty to protect. Therefore, he was mindful of the past.

The Crowds

The second act in the unfolding drama concerning Jesus’ identity happens among the general population. The evangelist devotes considerable ink to note the crowds that followed Jesus. In Luke 9, Jesus had already built a reputation as a prophet, teacher and miracle worker among the plebeian sections of society. The Kingdom had come to the destitute, and the crowds were attracted to it in order to be healed (Luke 9:11) and fed (Luke 9:13).

Luke 9 represents a seismic shift where Jesus places the Apostles as shepherds of the people. He not only sends them out to be among the people in their own cities and households (Luke 9:1-4), but also commissions them to care for the crowds that followed the movement (Luke 9:13). The Apostles were to be among the people, caring for them as shepherds of the flock. The proximity to the crowds gave the Apostles insight into what they thought about Jesus.

To the crowds, Jesus was John the Baptist, Elijah or one of the prophets of old (Luke 9:19). In other words, Jesus was a good ol’ prophet from the good ol’ days. The crowd’s perspective made much sense. Prior to John the Baptist and Jesus there was little to no prophetic activity in Israel. Protestant scholars often refer to this period as the “400 Silent Years”, which characterized the intertestamental period between Malachi in the Old Testament and the first New Testament writings. Events during this period had ripen a prophetic expectation throughout Israel. After a long period of silence, suddenly Jesus brings about the means to change people’s present reality. He performed miracles, healed and even fed the crowds. Jesus was like a prophet of old who permeated the stories of the Jewish people.

Whereas Herod Antipas looked to the past in order to secure his future, the crowds looked to the present. As a Good Ol’ Prophet, Jesus had the power to bring freedom from present needs. Crowd narratives in the Gospels are filled with present urgency. Healings, deliverances and other miracles happen in the present time, usually as the result faith inspired by immediate needs. Christ intervenes in the natural, but remains there in the crowd perspective. The crowds maintained a “need-based interaction” with Jesus, seldom allowing it flourish into a fruitful relationship. Thus explaining the confusion about Jesus the person, but a consensus regarding the benefits the prophet could bring.

The crowds maintained a “need-based interaction” with Jesus, seldom allowing it flourish into a fruitful relationship.

The Disciples

Luke continues to peel off the layers of Jesus’ identity as the narrative turns to his closest followers. At this instance I see a significant turn in the narrative, which is represented by Luke’s use of the coordinating conjunction “But”. “But who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:20) The conjunction here is clearly employed to cause a contrast between the previous perspectives and what the writer is now about to reveal.

Peter then answers, “You are God’s Messiah” (Luke 9:20). Jesus was not just a prophet fulfilling people’s prophetic expectations, but he was God’s Messiah, the Christ, fulfilling the Messianic Hope of Israel. It is very easy for us modern readers to interpret this passage “from above”, meaning we read it in light of other New Testament writings and our own theology. But to understand the disciples’ perspective we must read “from below”, piecing together clues from within Luke’s Gospel to understand what Peter meant.

A thorough reading of the Gospels shows that the disciples saw Jesus’ messianic role through a strong political connotation. We know the disciples jostled for prestige in the Kingdom (Mark 10:37), and even after the resurrection, they expected Christ to restore the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). This position was to be expected. Peter and other disciples were Zealots, a political movement which sought to end foreign occupation of Israel. Jesus had also started his ministry in Galilee, a key region for the resistance against the Roman Empire from where many rebellions had started. Galilee was also the location of Caesarea, a city built by the Romans to affirm Caesar’s lordship over the region. As the disciples proclaimed a new Kingdom throughout the region, it was if they were conquering back lost territory (Luke 9:4).

Jesus seemed to fit their ideological goals. Whereas Herod Antipas looked to the past for freedom from threats and the crowds looked to their present for freedom from their immediate needs, the disciples looked at the future for freedom from the oppressive regime, and the future looked bright. Their messianic hope was about to be realized. They had been given power (Luke 9:1) tasted messianic success (Luke 9:6, 16), the kingdom was near (Luke 9:27) and were now even arguing about who would be the greatest (Luke 9:46).

Jesus was the Christ, but it wasn’t according to their ideology. How was he the Messiah if he said he was going to be killed? (Luke 9:22) Although they experienced great power which would benefit the resistance, they did not understand why their political leader was going to surrender to the enemy (Luke 9:43-45). Christ was not to be a cog in their sociopolitical wheel. Jesus was not just a comrade who identified with their ideological struggle. The Son of Man was also the Son of God.

Jesus was not just a comrade who identified with their ideological struggle. The Son of Man was also the Son of God.

The Godhead

In the last act of this drama, we find that Luke does not leave us with Peter, but takes us deeper into a divine perspective about Jesus. Luke peels off the final layer and takes us into the core of Jesus’ identity. At this point, an unexpected character comes into play. The narrative that began with “who is this Jesus” now ends with God himself declaring, “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!” (Luke 9:35).

God steps into time and space, encompassing all reality to affirm Jesus identity. Saint Augustine captures the complexity of this exchange, “Christ Jesus, the Son of God, is God and Man: God before all worlds, man in our world… But since he is the only Son of God, by nature and not by grace, he became also the Son of Man that he might be full of grace as well.” The implication here is sonship. Christ is the subject of God’s mission, not the object of earthly ideologies. I find important to note that the only other time we read God’s voice coming from heaven was at Jesus’ baptism in Luke 3:22. This was before Jesus started his ministry or performed any miracles; meaning his identity was not only based on what he did, but who he was eternally.

If Jesus is the subject, the object of God’s mission is the glory of God. Peter supports his experience as “eyewitnesses of His majesty” (2Peter 1:16-19). It was about glory, God’s “Majestic Glory” (2Pet 1:17) revealed on the holy mountain. As with Moses, who asked to see God’s glory and later mediated a covenant (Exodus 33), Jesus receives a greater testimony. He himself was transfigured into full divine glory (Luke 9:29), God in the flesh of whom Moses and Elijah were servants (Luke 9:31), became the mediator of a greater covenant (Heb 8:6).

Jesus the Son of God brings freedom from temporal realities that attempt to define our identities. He embraces all reality, that he may become all and in all (Col 3:11). Jesus mediates a covenant of grace, which fashions all after a new nature according to the image of the Creator. Sonship leads us to freedom. “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2Cor 3:17-18).

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