We reflect on our mission work at the turn of the year. How do we handle the mix of emotions we feel about our successes and failures? God commands us to have joy. But we tend to focus on our own power (or lack of it) rather than rejoice in God’s presence.
Jesus dealt with this when his disciples returned from their mission in Luke 10.
The seventy-two returned with joy and said, “Lord, even the demons submit to us in your name.”
He replied, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. I have given you authority to trample on snakes and scorpions and to overcome all the power of the enemy; nothing will harm you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17–20, NIV)
The disciples were amazed at what happened while they were on their mission. They didn’t have power before. The disciples displayed authority in Jesus’ name, healed people, and silenced opposition. Jesus affirms the significance of their work by speaking of it in light of his greater defeat of Satan. Spiritual, eternal work happened.
Who wouldn’t desire to see God’s power like this? Prophets and kings had talked about it but never saw it (v. 24). The world craves it. Satan fell from heaven by going after it for himself (compare with Is. 14:12 and following). Out of all people, Jesus gave this experience to his ordinary students and made demons submit to them.
God’s given his people power to work in the face of all kinds of evil. This power is a way that God reveals his kingdom to the world. The apostles were seeing the fulfillment of centuries of prophesies and promises. Jesus spoke to them personally, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see!” (v. 23).
More Than Power
However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven (v. 20).
As amazing as God-given authority is, that “the spirits submit to you,” it’s not more worthy of attention than God’s power in salvation. Jesus isn’t calling his disciples to more power, but to something more than power.
Power over evil doesn’t mean that God’s people will never suffer and die. “Snakes and scorpions” were literal problems for the Israelites in the wilderness (see Deut. 8:15) but now represent “all the power of the enemy” to oppose the gospel. The real threat is spiritual death, eternal separation from God. Jesus says later, “[enemies] will put some of you to death… but not a hair of your head will perish” (Lk. 21:16, 18). Physical death doesn’t hinder God’s purposes or joy. His promises are not fully or finally fulfilled in this life, but “in heaven.”
God, the “Lord of heaven and earth” (v. 21), has called us by name. He’s secured our place in heaven. With him, our heavenly Father, we’re home. We’ll never be separated from him. This work is miraculous because the salvation of sinners is only possible with God. And when he does it, it’s sure. It’s been written. That is how God shows the permanence of a thing, in writing. This good news frees us to reflect on our work with joy.
God Commands His Joy
The one command we’re given in Luke 10:17–20 is “rejoice” in this salvation. How can a feeling like joy be commanded? With our own accomplishments in view, there’s no reliable way to command joy. Instead, keep God’s merciful, loyal love in view. What does a soul feel then? When we understand what it means for God to say to sinners, “you are my people,” we reply in joy, “you are my God” (Hos. 2:23).
His Joy in Our Work
Like the first disciples, you may be amazed at the authority you have and the good works you’ve done this year. And rightly so. This line of work is amazing.
In the last year, our group of believers saw people come to faith, start churches, and be equipped for ministry. Families moved to new continents, children were discipled and homes made hospitable for the kingdom’s sake. A disabled arm was healed and diseases were taken away. Sin was confessed and forgiven. People fought depression with hope. We learned languages and trained people in a dozen others to translate Scripture. We told the epic from creation to Christ many times and felt like we lived it.
Jesus tells us this work is more significant than we realize. All of it reflects an unseen spiritual work. Yet, think nothing of it. The works witness to someone greater (see Jn. 5:36, 10:25).
Jesus calls our attention to what’s eternally more valuable than any experience, power, success or skill that our eyes can see. It’s heaven itself: God’s presence. That’s where joy is (Ps. 16:11). He is the focal point of the kingdom.
His Joy Over Our Work
We’re in danger if we don’t rejoice in God when we reflect and report on our work. We’re no better than Satan when we give attention to the power of God over the presence of God. Satan was jealous of God’s power and was thrown from God’s presence swiftly and forever, “like lightning from heaven.” Likewise, Simon the sorcerer solicited the apostles for this when he said, “give me this power, too,” and was sternly rebuked (see Acts 8:18–24).
We imitate Satan when we boast as if we didn’t receive everything from God, when we’re jealous of what God’s given to others, and when we hold the blessings of the kingdom above the king himself. Jesus gave us his words in Luke 10:17–20 to help us resist Satan’s temptation.
His Joy in Our Failed Work
What about those of us who feel no joy when we reflect on the year’s work? These words are for us, too. Don’t you know that the work is God’s anyway, that the world is the Lord’s to save, that you’re saved not by what you’ve done but by his grace (Eph. 2:8; Tit. 3:5), that your greatest qualification for ministry is his mercy and this shuts Satan’s mouth (1 Tim. 1:16; Zech. 3:1–4), that your name’s written indelibly in heaven, and that his Spirit now draws you to look to Christ and not yourself?
It’s the Father’s pleasure to give us the kingdom (Lk. 12:32). He’s pleased to reveal himself, not to “the wise and learned,” but to ordinary disciples (v. 21). Our successes and our failures have no effect on our place in heaven or status as God’s children. Neither are stronger than our Savior. No matter what, we belong to him and will enjoy him forever.
As we reflect on the year, we should include sufferings, weaknesses, and failures. Another way that God reveals his kingdom to the world is by upholding us in them with joy. We can have this joy because it’s not based on our work but on God’s merciful, loyal love in the salvation of sinners. He’ll bring us safely home, where there’ll be no sin, suffering or death. So pray in confidence, “restore to me the joy of your salvation” (Ps. 51:12).
His Joy in the Work of Our Disciples
Many missionaries I know teach about missions from the first half of Luke 10. They do so to answer a good question: what does God’s word say about entering new places for the kingdom? Look for people or “houses of peace” that God has prepared.
It’s right to learn from the way that Jesus sent out his disciples in verses 1–11. But it’s not right to stop there. We also learn from Jesus in verses 17–20 how to follow-up with those we’ve sent. We welcome them back, listen to their reports, and affirm the significance of their work. Then, we remind them to rejoice, not in their work, but in God’s salvation.
Reflect on Your Work with Joy
So write up a report of your work. Include the successes and failures, and the feelings you have about them. Bring them to Christ. Then listen to his words to you from Luke 10:20. May God’s Spirit turn our eyes away from our work to Christ’s and meet the new year with joyful news. The gospel is always good for believers, especially during times of reflection and rest.
Whatever we’ve accomplished this year, and however we feel about it, Jesus knows we need this reminder: the greatest work of all is what God has done to save us. We’re his people, and he’s our God forever. This good news frees us to reflect on our work with joy.
Photo by Michael Long.