The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in Your name!’ And he said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven. || Luke 10.17-20
In this remarkable passage we have one of the most Gospel-centric statements in the whole of the Gospels. It speaks to the bedrock issue of our identity in the Atonement. It behooves us to pay it mind, and to think about its implications in our day-to-day lives, and in the ministry to which we give ourselves.
The Lord of the harvest had sent out 72 of His disciples at the beginning of the chapter. He articulated the greatness of the need in Gospel missions, the ripeness of the harvest fields, and He bemoaned the fewness of the laborers, leaving us with the charge to pray for the raising up and sending forth of workers. Then He sent these disciples to proclaim the Gospel and to drive out demons in the towns to which they would go.
The 72 “returned with joy,” declaring that demons were subdued and driven out in the Name of Jesus. There was legitimate joy in their hearts, the joy of being vessels in the carrying out of the works of God’s Kingdom. Yet, the Lord of the harvest gives them a startling response, one which ought to be central to our consciousness as those laboring in Gospel mission, but one which, like these 72, is often lacking in the consciousness of who we are as His servants.
According to Jesus, they were not to rejoice mainly in the works that were wrought through them, but rather to rejoice in the glory of their adoption as sons— as those whose names had been written by God in heaven.
Robert Stein, in his commentary on Luke, speaks to the meaning of the Lord’s exhortation:
This picks up the “joy” of Luke 10:17 and points out that their true joy should arise not from missionary accomplishments but from their eternal salvation.
That your names are written in heaven. This metaphor for eternal salvation is found in the OT, the intertestamental literature, and the NT. “Are written” is a divine passive meaning God has written your names in heaven.
[Stein, R. H. (1992). Luke (Vol. 24, p. 310). Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers.]
I want to say that it is indeed “upon this rock” that the Lord means to “build His church,” and only upon this rock-solid foundation will the “gates of Hades” be incapable of “prevailing” against Her.
It should be obvious to the child of God that this present world system, with all its sinful allurements, should no longer be accepted as part of our identity. We are to “reckon” ourselves “dead to sin, and alive in Christ,” and no clearly-thinking Christian would claim that a life given over to sin befits the life of discipleship. We will be battling our own sin until the Day of the Lord comes, but we are battling it because it doesn’t define us any longer. We are disciples, learning to crucify the world in our hearts, and to walk in the way of the Master. This should be clear to us.
Less clear, often, is the fact that we ought to be battling against our tendency to interweave the good things (even things so good as driving out demons in Jesus’ Name, or being engaged in various forms of ministry) with our identity at the root-level. Bearing fruit in ministry is a great cause for rejoicing, but if it is the primary ground of rejoicing, something has been twisted in our understanding of the faith.
Jesus said not to give primacy to the works that are being wrought through us, but rather to rejoice at the deepest level in eternal salvation; that is to say, that we have become sons and daughters of God through the Gospel of the Kingdom.
Here is a simple way to think about it, one which is so simple that I’ve taught it to my children.
Our identity in the Gospel has vertical and horizontal implications.
Vertically, as we look unto Christ, our root-identity has become that of “sons” and “daughters” of God. Horizontally, our root-identity has become that of “brothers” and “sisters” in the family that we’ve been adopted into.
The Scriptures are so thickly threaded with this truth that I haven’t the time to recite all the verses that speak to us along these lines.
Suffice it to say, whatever I may be engaged in with regard to ministry, even God-given ministries that are biblical and line up with my own unique giftings, they will all become distortions if I am not living as a son in the vertical sense, and as a brother in the horizontal sense.
This puts the Gospel-premium on my relationship to the Father through Christ, and my relationship to the church through Christ.
Therefore, the evidence of my failure to “rejoice” that my name is “written in heaven” will show itself by prayerlessness, neglect of Bible-reading, a disregard for the many commands of Scripture pertaining to life and godliness, and the neglect of healthy relationship within a local Church. I cannot be truly rejoicing in the Gospel if these things are neglected, for they are evidence of the fact that I am no longer seeing myself as a son who walks circumspectly before the Father, and a brother who walks closely with the family of God. Without this reality, there is no stamp of God’s blessing upon my ministry, as a missionary, a pastor, a theologian, or any other role.
I cease to see God as my Source through the Gospel when I neglect communion with Him, and fellowship with His people. I begin to see my “calling” as a preacher, a writer, a church-planter, a worship-leader, a missionary, ministry director, or whatever it may be, as being superior to my grace-given calling as a son before God, and a brother to the saints.
Being a Gospel-grounded son infuses me with the grace of Christ, and being a brother in the context of the life of church keeps me footed on the self-same foundation, and guards me from deception. Yes, even from deceptive ways of doing all sorts of ministry.
Variegated kinds of destructive things have occurred in the name of ministry where these foundations are lacking. That’s because the Lord of the harvest never called his people to do things in the “name of ministry,” but rather in the “Name of Christ,” on the foundational truth that our names have been written in Heaven on the basis of the Atonement. Moral collapses, doctrinal deviations, and misrepresentations of church and mission have issued from the want of this reality.
We are simply not living as disciples of Jesus when our ministries take the preeminent place in our souls.
When there is a fracture in the vertical life-line of sonship, we can literally do nothing aright, for “apart from Me you can do nothing.”
When there is a fracture in the horizontal life-line of brotherhood, even the noblest of ministries become a distortion, for the Lord means to “build” His “church”, not merely to perform a litany of detached and multi-faceted works, however much we might seek to establish them in His Name. Nothing can be established in the Name of the Head in the neglect of His Body. Perhaps the most deceptive form of this neglect of the church is when we bear every kind of ecclesiological language (the priesthood of all believers, biblical eldership, Gospel-centric fellowship), but lack the corresponding reality which belongs to those precious truths. We may, even as the Pharisees of old, have an intensive focus on the truths of Scripture, while being devoid of the grace and life from which those truths ought to find their issuance. We may honor the Head with our lips while our hearts are far from Him, and this is something which we need to be on most diligent guard against.
The Head cannot be detached from the Body. If our works are not building His church, neither are they truly exalting the Head. If we are not experiencing life as members in His Body, neither are we experiencing life as it issues from the Head. When the vertical and horizontal fruits of our belonging to Christ are lacking or being circumvented, we are swimming in sub-apostolic waters, and sharks abound therein.
So what can be said of your works, saints? Are you rejoicing that demons are subject to you; that your sermon was hailed as great; that the missions work is expanding and doing much good; that your writings are being heralded as ground-breaking; that your theology is ship-shape and confirmed as orthodox by men you esteem; the list goes on. Many of these things, if not all, could either be an expression of God truly bearing fruit in your life, or an expression of that you have become one who is operating in deception.
The question is, are you vitally related to God through your adoption as a son, and are you vitally related to the local church for the ongoing growth of a true rejoicing in the eternal salvation that has come to you in Christ?
Are you living, thinking, praying and laboring as a purchased son? Do the Christians around you truly know you as a brother— in accountability, vulnerability, and godly responsibility in their midst? Or are you more known by your particular gifting or position in the world or in ministry? If the latter, you are standing upon a faulty foundation, however fruitful your ministry may appear to be, with all of its calculated external characteristics. A ministry of that kind may be alive by way of reputation, but God will only reward finally what has been wrought by His Spirit and carried out in accordance with His Word. Jesus would have none of this for the 72, and He will have none of it for us. His love for us is too great and too true to permit it.
No wonder that the most fruitful of apostles in Church history “determined to know nothing among” the saints “except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified.” He wanted their identity to be founded upon and issuing from the only faithful and immutable foundation. He was eager to preach the Gospel to the sinners and saints, for only in the Atonement can the saints receive and enjoy the familial identity of sons and daughters before God, and brothers and sisters in His family.
Look at your life and ministry in light of the exhortation that Jesus gave the 72. Find and tear out the threads of inferior rejoicing that you’ve permitted to define your identity and drive your decisions and ambitions. Let the cross of Christ bring you to the place Paul boasted in, that cross “by which the world has been crucified to me, and I have been crucified to the world.”
Your joy will be fuller and fuller as you grow in an identity of sonship, and share intimately as brothers and sisters in the grace and truth of the Gospel with “the church, which is His Body.” On this foundation He means to build His church in the nations, and by His zeal He will accomplish this. May we be found in the company of souls who know the preciousness of this truth, carrying out His work upon the only true foundation of life and ministry.
But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His Name, He gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. || John 1.12-13
Let love of the brethren continue. || Heb. 13.1
Since you call on a Father who judges each person’s work impartially, live out your time as foreigners here in reverent fear. For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your ancestors, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake. Through Him you believe in God, who raised Him from the dead and glorified Him, and so your faith and hope are in God.
Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart. For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For,
“All people are like grass,
and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;
the grass withers and the flowers fall,
but the word of the Lord endures forever.”
And this is the word that was preached to you. || 1 Pet. 1.17-25