Death and Taxes
“But in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” So quipped Benjamin Franklin when reflecting on the impermanence of the newly minted American constitution. We can be confident of two things in life: that we die and that we pay tax. True as this may be, for the follower of Jesus there are other things we can be confident about.
Luke’s entire Gospel account is dedicated to the purpose of building confidence and certainty in the disciple (1:1–4). And so, when Luke includes Jesus’ call to discipleship, he intends us to grow into confident disciples. So what can we certain of?
In response to Peter’s correct assertion that Jesus is indeed the Messiah (9:20), Jesus responds with two portraits of the Son of Man. Imagine walking into an art gallery and hanging on the wall are two framed portraits of Jesus. One portrait is familiar. Triumph. The phrase “the Son of Man” refers to the triumphant human figure of Daniel 7 who is given universal authority and power by God himself (Dan 7:13–14). This same portrait is applied to the coming Messiah in places such as Psalm 72:15–17 and Isaiah 11:1.
So stand back and take in the view. See the throne, the crown, the exalted pose, the exaggerated figure. This is a portrait of victory, and it is this portrait that Peter had firmly fixed in his mind. Now, Jesus doesn’t deny this portrait. He says that the Son of Man will come in “glory and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels” (9:26) and that the “Kingdom of God” is coming (9:27). Victory is on the cards.
But hanging next to this portrait of glory and power hangs another portrait, one of ruin and suffering, of pain and defeat. Jesus says, “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised” (9:22). Despite the hope introduced by “raised,” this is still a picture of suffering, rejection, exclusion, and murder. A picture dominated by tones of defeat rather than victory.
Two points of certainty
However, rather than presenting us with a contradiction or a paradox, these two portraits represent two points of certainty in the life the Son of Man: he will suffer, and he will be raised in glory. As certain as the one is, so too is the other. In other words, the fact that Jesus suffered gives currency to the certainty of his glorification – glory is as certain as his suffering. In this way, these portraits represent the story of the messiah: suffering and then glory.
Jesus takes these two points of certainty in the life of the messiah and applies them to all who would follow him. It’s as if he gives us a map that helps us navigate discipleship. Sandwiched between the two portraits of the Son of Man is the call to follow Jesus by denying ourselves and taking up our cross daily (Luke 9:23–25). Identifying with Jesus will be like the walk to crucifixion, a walk towards death. Suffering is the first certain point of reference.
But why would anyone embrace a life of certain suffering? Indeed, why would anyone in secular culture embrace a message that says pursuing yourself is a dead end? Daily crucifixion only makes sense if alongside the certain suffering there is guaranteed something greater – glory. The glorious kingdom of the Son of Man is guaranteed by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Glory is the second certain point of reference.
Discipleship means suffering for Jesus (lose your life) in the hope of glory (save your life, Luke 9:24). This is no surprise, for these two points of reference repeatedly appear together throughout Scripture. Consider the great roll call of faith, Hebrews 11: Abraham left his father’s family and embraced the insecure life of a foreign nomad (Heb 11:8–12), Moses chose a promised reward over fleeting pleasure by embracing reproach rather than riches (11:24–26), some chose torture and death in hope of a future resurrection (11:35), while others walked a path of unworthiness in the world’s eyes in hope of what was promised (11:38–39).
At the summit of this mountain of faithful saints is Jesus, who endured the suffering of the cross for joy and glorious exaltation. But notice that his exaltation is wonderfully present: he is seated at the right hand of God (12:2). The path of suffering and glory is not only well worn, it is guaranteed, for the risen and reigning Jesus has walked this path before us. His path of suffering and glory guarantees our path of suffering and glory.
For the Christian, then, death and taxes are not the only certainties, nor even the chief certainties. What can we be certain of? Suffering and glory.
How do these two points of certainty build confident disciples? Well, just like having an accurate map can give us certainty of where we are and where we are going, these two certainties give us confidence to navigate life as followers of Jesus.
Suffering and glory are like two certain points of reference on a map designed for discipleship. We can point to where we are on the map: suffering with Christ, just like Christ suffered before me. And this suffering won’t disorient us because suffering can’t erode our hope of glory – indeed suffering is evidence of our glory to come (Luke 6:22–23; Rom 8:35–37; 1 Pet 4:14)! This reframes the way we approach suffering. In a culture that is allergic to pain, suffering, and exclusion, we can embrace these for Christ’s sake without losing confidence. It will hurt, no doubt about that. But it need not harm our confidence.
In an anxious age that tries in vain to find certain points of reference for navigating life, Jesus gives real confidence to those who follow him. He gives us a map of the terrain and a clear path: suffering then glory. He walked every step and has seen every inch of the path, and he’s reached the end. And he walked it for us. His suffering death and risen glory guarantees our place with him.
I’m not sure what 2021 will hold, but I am certain that if you follow Jesus you will suffer. But just as certain is the glory to come. You can follow Jesus with confidence, for whatever you suffer now is “not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed” (Rom 8:18, cf. 2 Cor 4:17).