Loose Ends and Threads of the Kingdom of God

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“Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you.’ Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near” (Luke 10:9-11).
Grace and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ!
Like many farm kids, my brother and I learned to be resourceful. String doesn’t grow on trees, and we certainly weren’t going to ask Mom or Dad to go buy us some when there was a perfectly good supply in the barn left over from the twine cut off the hay bales. The hardest part was untangling it. There were always a bunch of threads you had to follow to get each individual piece of twine free. Sometimes you would get so frustrated with a particular knot that you’d end up cutting the twine. Then you’d only end up with more loose ends.
Looking back, I learned a lot from this experience: I learned practical skills in how to tie a good knot and braid and even make a heavy rope. I learned the disciplines of patience and persistence. I learned problem solving techniques and spatial reasoning. And perhaps more than anything, I learned how to make do with what you have on hand and be content with it. I never, for a moment, thought it might help me someday in writing a sermon.
Tim Saleska suggests that our text, rather than presenting us with a series of clear commands, laws, and instructions, sounds as though the kingdom of God is made of a lot of threads and loose ends.
“Words, themes, and events in this text have connections, or threads, with the Old Testament and various other texts,” he says. “We can follow the threads to see how this text ties in to a bigger picture of God’s kingdom. The threads also invite us to read forward. That is, they connect us, God’s people now, to God’s kingdom as well. Loose ends in the text leave us hanging in various ways: tensions in God’s kingdom that still need to be resolved, questions that need to be answered, events that have not happened yet.”[i]
So, let’s review our text, stopping from time to time to follow a couple of the threads and pull on a few of the loose ends we find. As we do, let’s keep in mind that Jesus is not giving us evangelism techniques or instructing us in how we must do mission work. He is trying to get His disciples and us to see the world as He does. That is not an easy task, for Jesus’ view is entirely different from other viewpoints that vie for our attention. But I would suggest that this insight, can do much to influence the way we live our lives and live out the faith.
As the days draw near for Him to be taken up, and Jesus makes His way to Jerusalem, it becomes increasingly obvious that a vast number of people are prospects for the kingdom of God. However, workers to proclaim the Gospel message are few. Jesus makes a comparison with the harvesting of ripe grain. No matter how plentiful the harvest, the crop will be small if workers are scarce. The metaphor of the harvest is usually used in Scripture for judgment (Jeremiah 51:33; Hosea 6:11), but here it is positive (Isaiah 9:3; Psalm 126:5-6). The language suggests that it deals with the end times—an urgent matter of life and death.
To be a harvester for God’s kingdom is difficult work. Jesus has laid strict demands on those who would follow (Luke 9:57-62). Proclaiming the kingdom of God calls for dedication and commitment that, unfortunately, too few people have. Yet there are some ready for this task of harvesting. Jesus appoints 72 men and sends them out two by two into the towns through which He will be passing. These appointees are in addition to the apostles. The work of harvesting is not limited to just the Twelve. It is too big a job. In fact, the first assignment Jesus gives these new recruits is to pray for the Lord of the harvest to provide more workers.
The Seventy-two are sent without provisions. They are ambassadors who have foregone the things of this world and are dependent on the care and protection of the locals. They have renounced home and family; their new family are those who receive their message of peace. They are not to depend on themselves, but their trust is in the provision and protection of the Lord of the harvest.
The commission of the Seventy-two is Christological and sacrificial in nature. Jesus subtly implies this when He describes them “as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). The Greek word for “lamb,” arnon, is used only here in the New Testament. But in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, it is used as the technical term for the sacrificial lamb of the Passover (Exodus 12:5) or the burnt offering (Leviticus 1:10) or the sacrifice of peace (Leviticus 3:7).
By describing them as lambs, Jesus suggests that they will be rejected and suffer the consequences of announcing the presence of the kingdom of God. Like their Lord they will become sacrificial victims of the Gospel that calls for a reversal of the world’s values. After the calling of the Twelve and the description of His passion, Jesus had told them about their own cross-bearing as His followers (Luke 9:23). The Seventy-two should expect the same. To save their life they must lose it. They are sacrificial lambs, who go forth in full knowledge of the world’s enmity. But in their proclamation they will show that they are not ashamed of Jesus and His words. They are a part of a privileged group to whom the Father, through Jesus, has revealed the secrets of the kingdom of God (Luke 10:21; 8:9-10).
Moreover, the Seventy-two carry in themselves, in their own bodies, Jesus’ redemption and His peace. The peace that has come down from above in Jesus they can now give—and receive back when it is not received. As His ambassadors, they now represent Jesus and stand in His place. They bear in themselves the person of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:10). In bearing the cross daily, they also bear the image of the Passover lamb who must be sacrificed for the people.
Perhaps Jesus’ instruction to “greet no one on the road” seems a little bit cold even in our get-right-down-to-business day. Any sales course will tell you that you have to establish rapport with your prospect before you get down to business. In the ancient Middle East, exchanging greetings could be quite time consuming, typically including inquiries about family, followed by reports on how everyone was doing. But such chitchat takes away from the proclamation of the kingdom, and so Jesus tells the Seventy-two that it is to be avoided. This is yet another way that Jesus emphasizes the urgency of His kingdom and its call.
Rather than a lengthy greeting on the road, the Seventy-two are to go directly to the house and announce, “Peace be to this house!” The message of the kingdom of God contains both calls for repentance and good news, both judgment against sin and forgiveness. The first word that Jesus’ messengers announce is one of grace and good will. So it remains today. The Good News of God’s grace in Christ is the Church’s predominant message. Only those who receive with faith the blessings apportioned by the Gospel actually benefit from it.
To keep the mission simple, the disciples are to stay at one house. This will help restrain the temptation to strive for gain by soliciting donations from many houses. They deserve to be given appropriate provisions for their mission, but their purpose should not be to maximize their profit from their efforts. The duration of their stay in a single house would also tend to establish a strong base from which all other emissaries might go out in the future.
Jesus then shifts His emphasis from the house to the town. “Whenever you enter a town and they receive you, eat what is set before you. Heal the sick in it and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has some near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say, ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe off against you. Nevertheless, know that the kingdom of God has come near’” (Luke 10:9-11).
The Seventy-two announce to the towns the arrival of the kingdom of God because of the presence of Jesus. In some towns, they will find a ready welcome. However, other towns will not have the welcome mat out. The act of wiping off the dust that sticks to one’s feet is a symbol of God’s coming judgment against those who refuse the message of grace. Yet whether welcome or not, the workers are to announce that the kingdom of God is near in the person of Jesus.
The thought that some towns will reject the message of God’s kingdom provokes Jesus to speak out against such ingratitude and lack of repentance. Sodom was destroyed by burning sulfur because of its wickedness (Genesis 19:24). Yet even Sodom will be judged less severely than those cities that close their hearts to Jesus and His messengers. He condemns some of the Jewish cities near the Sea of Galilee for their failure to repent.
Jesus makes it clear that His messengers speak with His authority and should be treated accordingly. Receiving the Word of the kingdom from one of these 72 is as good as receiving the Word from Jesus Himself. At the same time, those rejecting God’s representatives are actually rejecting Him. The Reformers saw this dynamic very clearly, equating the Church’s authority with its call to proclaim the Gospel:
“They have been given the ministry of the Word and Sacraments. They have no other authority according to the Gospel than the authority to forgive sins, to judge doctrine, to reject doctrines contrary to the Gospel, and to exclude from the communion of the Church wicked people, whose wickedness is known. They cannot exclude people with human force, but simply by the Word.”[ii]
The Seventy-two return to Jesus, giddy with excitement: “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!” Jesus shares in their rejoicing and tells of a vision He had of Satan falling like lightning from heaven. In their preaching and in their healing, they are achieving victory over Satan and his minions, a victory that will be ultimately demonstrated in the judgment on the Last Day.
Nevertheless, Jesus directs the attention of the disciples away from thoughts about sensational success to contemplation upon their heavenly status. Pride and a theology of success could take their focus off of what is truly important—the heavenly gift of God’s grace. Their names are written in heaven, beside the names of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the chosen people of old. They are merely part of a pattern that stretches back to the Old Testament prophets and is centered in Jesus, the greatest Prophet, who testifies to God’s presence and salvation through teaching and miracles. The Seventy-two speak His words and represent His person.
Let’s be honest: there’s a lot going on here in this text. It gives us a complex picture of the nature of God’s kingdom. But that shouldn’t be so surprising, should it? We have a very complex King. One whose thoughts and ways are much higher than ours. The now-not yet, hidden-visible, Law-Gospel, and power displayed in weakness, tensions are not solved in this text. Even Jesus’ closest followers fail to grasp much of this until after His death and resurrection. In the present age, we cannot escape our own questions or resolve all the seeming contradictions. We live within them and our experience of them marks our Christian life.
Certainly, thinking of the kingdom of God as a bunch of threads and loose ends will not resolve all of our questions or present us with a concrete program for action. Instead, it helps us expand our vision of what the Church is all about and what Jesus has done and will do for His Bride, the Church, throughout time. In many ways, the text keeps us wondering and waiting. That is a good posture for God’s people to take. Through this mystery, Jesus reminds us that we are part of something much bigger and farther reaching than ourselves. In fact, it is probably true that threads and loose ends have always characterized God’s kingdom from the first mysterious promise of a Savior, the Seed of the woman, who will crush the serpent’s head. That is what we are part of, and we must wait and watch for everything to be tied up on that Last Day of which Jesus speaks.
In the meantime, we trust Jesus’ Word: The kingdom of God has come near to you. Where will you find it? Right where He has promised, in His means of grace. Here in little Trosky, Minnesota and everywhere God’s people gather that the Gospel is purely taught and the Sacraments are correctly administered. Here, in Christ’s means of grace, you have the assurance that this is true for you as well.
“The kingdom of God has come near to you.” That’s what the Seventy-two announced to those whom they healed by the power of Jesus, and I announce the same to you today: for while you may not be healed of injury or sickness until the Day of Resurrection, Jesus has already raised you from death to life by the forgiveness of your sins. Therefore, you can be sure that He will heal you of every bodily affliction on the Last Day, if not before. This is true for you because the kingdom of God has come near to you; your name has been written in heaven.
In Baptism, God has adopted you as His own dear child. He has placed His triune name upon you, baptized you into Christ’s death and resurrection. The blood of the Lamb of God, has cleansed you from all your sins. You have been clothed in the robe of Christ’s righteousness. In His Supper, Jesus greets you with peace. He invites you to His Table to receive His very body and blood for the forgiveness of your sins and to strengthen and preserve you—body and soul—unto eternal life.
Rejoice! For the kingdom of God has come near to you. And because the King has come near with the peace He won for you on the cross with His holy, precious blood and His innocent suffering and death, you are forgiven for all of your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[i] Timothy E. Saleska, “Proper 9, Luke 10:1-20.” Concordia Journal, 42 (2016): 148-149.
[ii] McCain, P. T. (Ed.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (p. 59). St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House.


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