Today, tomorrow, and the next day, I must be on my way”, Jesus declares, “because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (Luke 13:33). This is the central statement in the short but powerful Gospel passage offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday.
Jesus goes to Jerusalem. Before that, the earliest account of his life, the Gospel of Mark, devotes nine chapters to the time that Jesus spent travelling around Galilee. By tradition, that was a period of three years; although that timing actually derives from the three references to the annual festival of Passover in John’s Gospel (John 2:13; 6:4; 11:55).
During those nine Markan chapters, Jesus teaches and heals, tells parables and casts out demons. The section comes to a head with the report of Peter’s confession, that Jesus is the one chosen by God (Mark 8:27–29) and the account of Jesus being transfigured on the mountain, in the presence of Elijah and Moses (Mark 9:2–8).
After those nine chapters, Mark provides a succinct report of Jesus’s sole journey to Jerusalem in Mark’s account: Jesus “left that place and went to the region of Judea and beyond the Jordan; and crowds again gathered around him; and, as was his custom, he again taught them” (Mark 10:1).
The journey is noted—Jesus is suddenly “in the region of Judea, beyond the Jordan”, back where he was first baptised (Mark 1:5). The journey is swiftly left behind, as it is also in Matthew’s account (Matt 19:1). Jesus enters the city in short time (Mark 11:11; Matt 21:10).
Not so in Luke’s orderly account of the things that have been fulfilled amongst us (1:1–4); the journey to Jerusalem begins at 9:51 (“when the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem”), but takes ten full chapters to narrate. Jesus does not actually begin to approach Jerusalem until 19:11. Even then, his entry to the city is drawn out; Jesus tells a parable (19:11–27), rides down from the Mount of Olives on a donkey (19:28–38), weeps over the city (19:39–44), then when he enters the city, he goes immediately to the temple (19:45).
In the almost ten full chapters that he takes to narrate the journey that Jesus took, with his disciples, Luke includes much material that is found only in his narrative. Jesus continues to teach his followers and heal the sick, telling parables and casting out demons. He continues his practice of eating at table with others and broadens his group of disciples who are commissioned to cure the sick and proclaim that “the kingdom of God has come near to you” (10:9).
His decision to travel to Jerusalem is reported in terms of weighty theological significance (9:51-56). “When the days drew near for him” might literally be rendered, “in the filling up to completion of the days”; the verb is an intensifying compound of pleroō, meaning to come to fruition or to be filled up.
Pleroō is the same verb used at the start of Luke’s narrative, at 1:1, where it also has a heavy theological sense (the things that God was bringing to fulfilment or completion). It also appears at the end of the narrative, when Jesus refers everything written about him “in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms” being fulfilled in accord with divine necessity (24:44).
The word appears also within the body of Luke’s narrative in relation to the fulfilment of scripture (4:21), the fulfilment of the time of the nations (21:24), and the fulfilment of the kingdom (22:16). And quite significantly, the exact same phrase introduces Luke’s account of the day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). It is a signal that something very important is taking place.
The phrase “to be taken up” translates one word, analēmpsis, which could also be translated as “ascension”; the verb is used of Jesus rising into the clouds at Acts 1:2, 11, 22. This, of course, is the climactic moment at the end of the Gospel (Luke 24:50–51) and the opening scene of the second volume (Acts 1:6–11). It is already in view here, much earlier in the story.
When we read that Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51), the language indicates a steely resolve, a fixed determination, to head towards the city. The verb used here stēridzō, is found in the LXX to refer to God’s determination (Lev 17:10; 20:3–8; 26:17; Isa 50:7; Ezek 14:8; 15:7) and it forms a consistent refrain in God’s directions to the prophet Ezekiel (Ezek 4:3, 7; 6:2; 13:17; 20:46; 21:2; 25:2; 28:21; 29:2; 35:2; 38:2). Jesus turns to Jerusalem with a fixed prophetic intent; when he arrives in the city, it is “a visitation from God” (19:44).
The reason for this unflinching resolution is provided in references along the journey. The ominous words that Jesus had spoken after he was transfigured on the mountain, “the Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands” (9:44), is expanded in a fuller teaching about the fate in store for Jesus (18:31–33). It is necessary for him to head to Jerusalem, for the fate that waits there for him; “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (13:33).
Curiously, there are relatively few references to Jerusalem along the way (9:53; 13:22, 32–35; 17:11; 19:11). Luke is content to remind us, from time to time, of the destination; but the main focus is on the journey itself, the encounters and instructions, the table talk and story telling along the way. The purpose is to embed the importance of faithfulness, even as his disciples become aware of the cost involved in following Jesus.
Whilst journeying on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus tells parables about the responsible use of resources (12:13–21; 16:1–13; 16:19–31) and focusses on this in his encounters with an unnamed wealthy ruler (18:18–30) and a wealthy chief tax collector, Zacchaeus (19:1–10). He tells his followers about God’s extravagant compassion (15:1–32) and instructs them that they are to show this in their lives (10:29–37; 14:7–14, 15–24; 15:1–32).
These and other scenes wrap around a central passage providing direct teachings about the cost of discipleship: “whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple … none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions” (14:25–35). This is the heart of the journey for the disciples, just as the lament at the midpoint of the journey reveals its meaning for Jesus: “it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem” (13:33–35). The journey is a deeply difficult undertaking, both for Jesus, and for his followers.
So there is to be no looking back when the kingdom of God beckons (9:59–62). Jesus regularly reminds his followers of the need to be prepared (12:35–46, 49–56; 17:7–10; 17:20–37; and see 21:34–36). He returns again and again to his message of the kingdom (10:8–12; 11:14–23; 12:31–42; 13:18–21; 13:24–30; 16:16; 17:20–21; 18:15–17, 24–25, 29–30; 19:11).
On the journey, Jesus maintains his insistent focus on this central element of his message, emphasised from the very beginning—the coming kingdom of God (cf. 4:43; 6:20; 8:1–3, 10; 9:11). The charge to proclaim this kingdom, issued first to the twelve (9:1–2), is then extended to the seventy (10:8–12). The message is urgent; the kingdom is imminent (9:27; 11:20; 17:20–21; 21:31).
The journey requires deep wells of faith (12:22–31; 17:5–6; 18:1–8), exemplified by the healed Samaritan leper, no less (17:19), as well as the healed blind man outside Jericho (18:35–53). Jesus expects nothing less than a firm commitment to follow (9:57–62; 13:36–38). Yet even though the ominous fate in store for him in Jerusalem had been clearly articulated (6:22; 9:22; 9:44; 11:30; 18:31–33), the disciples, sadly, remained resolutely ignorant of the matter; notice the triple conviction in Luke’s summation: “they understood nothing … what he said was hidden from them … they did not grasp what was said” (18:34).
Has the journey been worth it? Or has it all been futile? Luke’s storytelling skills offer layer upon layer for our understanding of what it means to follow Jesus on the journey.