Luke 9 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
The Blessing of Decision: Privilege, Mission and Commitment
The journey's initial section concentrates on disciples. After some initial failure by the disciples (9:51-62), success follows in the mission of the seventy-two (10:1-24). In light of such success, Jesus instructs the disciples about the special nature of the time in which they live. It is not a time of judgment but of invitation. It is the hour of decision, and decisions about the disciples' message have everlasting consequences.
Knowing God is a blessing and life's highest priority. But that blessing is not automatic for every individual; it must be consciously entered into by embracing the hope the disciples offer. This period is so special that kings and prophets have longed to share in the blessings that the disciples get to experience through Jesus. To minister with power is exciting, but to know God and his grace is even better.Rejection in Samaria (9:51-56)
The section opens with the note in verse 51 that Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem. The journey begins. It starts as the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven. Imagery of Jesus' fate and destiny appears even in the start to this section. "Setting one's face" to do something is an Old Testament way of speaking about resolve (Gen 31:21; Jer 21:10; 44:12; Lohse 1968:776 n. 45). Jesus is determined to accomplish God's will wherever it leads.
Jesus' path often leads to rejection. The lesson, however, is not rejection's presence but how we respond to it. This short account is unique to Luke. It also is the only passage where Samaritans are portrayed negatively (contrast 10:25-37; 17:11-19). As Jesus heads for Jerusalem, we might think that a change of scenery and an outreach program in a new ethnic area might have more success than earlier efforts. This brief account makes it clear that rejection is not limited to Israel.
In Jewish eyes Samaritans were half-breeds, ethnic traitors, bad guys. When the nation was divided, Samaria was originally a name for the capital of the northern kingdom founded by Omri (1 Kings 16:21-24). Samaritans intermarried with other peoples in the region. They even worshiped at a different site, Mount Gerazim (Jn 4:20-24). Many recognized only the Pentateuch as inspired. Traditionally Jews and Samaritans were hostile to one another. So Jesus' effort to reach out to them is culturally exceptional. It would be like ministering in a crossracial setting today. The reaction might be "What are you doing here?" and "Can you believe he ministers to them?"
Jesus sends messengers ahead to prepare the people for his arrival. Much like an advance public relations team, they were to help plan what would occur when he arrived. But the Samaritans did not welcome him. The explanation is that Jesus' face is set toward Jerusalem. In other words, rejection is his fate. Even though that rejection will occur in the capital of Israel, the Samaritan reaction mirrors that coming reality. The world is not responsive to Jesus; rejection is widespread.
The disciples react with the wish to use their connections and power to launch a retributive strike. James and John ask for the ancient equivalent of nuking the enemy: "Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?" The disciples understand the great power they have access to, but the question is whether vindictive use of this power is proper. Is their hostile reaction justified? The request for "fire from above" recalls the ministry of Elijah (2 Kings 1). In their view, surely rejection means instant judgment.
Jesus corrects them. The text does not tell us what he said. In a story that is a little unusual in form, it simply notes that Jesus rebukes them and they move on to the next village. Many Gospel accounts end with a climactic saying of Jesus, a pronouncement that is key to the event in question. Here Jesus' action speaks for itself. There is no saying; rather, the disciples' saying becomes a view to be rejected emphatically. The disciples are not to wield their power as a club of judgment. Vindication from God will come later, as he deals with those who reject him. Warnings can be issued, as in 9:5, 10:13-16 or 17:20-36, but God is giving people time to decide to come to him. So the disciples are to preach the opportunity for salvation. If they are not well received, they are to move on. So having left this Samaritan city, Jesus and the disciples continue their mission in another village.
Acts 8 shows that the disciples eventually returned to this region with some success. Second Peter 3:9 may well be a theological commentary on an event like this: God is patient, wanting all to come to repentance; his judgment waits so that more may have time to come to him.The Demands of Discipleship (9:57-62)
In the midst of rejection, it becomes crucial to understand the nature of discipleship. The three sayings of these verses stress what discipleship requires. The presence of the kingdom means not instant power and position but rejection by the world. It requires a focused commitment to be a disciple.
The key to this section is the verb follow, which appears in verses 57, 59 and 61. The three examples parallel the threefold call of Elisha by Elijah, except in Luke three different persons are called (2 Kings 2:1-6; L. T. Johnson 1991:162). The three cases are all different. In one case Jesus makes the call (v. 59). In another a disciple offers to follow wherever Jesus goes with no excuses (v. 57). In the third case the disciple has a priority that stands before his desire to follow Jesus (v. 61). The first and third scenes are the only two records of someone offering to follow Jesus. Whatever the approach to discipleship is, the requirement is the same: following Jesus is a priority.
The first volunteer's offer is open-ended; he will go anywhere Jesus goes. Matthew 8:18-19 makes it clear that he is approaching Jesus as a student would approach a rabbi, since Jesus is addressed as "Teacher." Students in Judaism lived with their teachers to learn Torah and see a model of a righteous life. But there is more to discipleship with Jesus than being a student. Jesus' response makes it clear that discipleship is a demanding affair. To follow Jesus is more like following an Old Testament prophet than like studying with a rabbi (Hengel 1981). Jesus, calling himself the Son of Man, says that he has no home. Even foxes and birds have more of a home than Jesus does. Discipleship requires resolve because it means rejection. The premise behind the remark is that disciples will have to follow the same path as the Son of Man. Discipleship requires trusting God in the midst of rejection.
The second scene involves a man who wishes to bury his father before he comes to follow Jesus. Though the request seems reasonable, the potential disciple's premise is that family comes before Jesus. In Judaism, burying family members is a priority (Sirach 38:16; Tobit 4:3-4; 12:12). The request also parallels Elisha's request to Elijah (1 Kings 19:19-21). Jesus, however, represents the arrival of a new, more demanding era. So even carrying out such a burial is insignificant in the face of discipleship. The task must be left for others: "Let the dead bury their own dead."
Jesus' response seems so harsh that some have argued the man's wish is to wait until his father has died and can be buried--something that could take years. But nothing in Jesus' request or the reply suggests such a delay. Jesus' command is heavily rhetorical, since the dead cannot bury anyone. It means either that the spiritually dead should be left to perform this task or that such concern is inconsequential in the face of the call to discipleship. As important as taking care of a family member's death is, it is a lower priority. Either way, Jesus makes it clear the request should not be honored. Even the "best excuse" possible should not get in the way of discipleship.
Instead, the call is to go and proclaim the kingdom of God. This is the responsibility of all disciples. All must be prepared to share the message of God's goodness in Christ. The remark raises questions about the nature of the kingdom. What does such preaching emphasize? The best examples of it, in light of the additional revelation of the cross, are the speeches in Acts. Central to these speeches is the authority of Jesus Christ as Messiah and Lord. He is the mediator of divine blessing and the returning Judge of the living and the dead (Acts 2, 3, 10). Jesus' exercise of authority and rule comes in conjunction with Old Testament promise (Lk 24:43-47).
Though some might wish to distinguish between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of heaven, making the two sets of kingdom texts teach about distinct programs in the plan of God, there is no reason to do so, since parallel texts between the Gospels alternate the terminology in the same saying (for example, Mt 4:17 and Mk 1:15; Mt 13:31-32 and Lk 13:18-19). Apparently "the kingdom of heaven," Matthew's term, and "the kingdom of God" can be exchanged in the same passage and treated as synonyms. The passage in Mark is really significant because there the kingdom of God message is also called "the gospel."
Matthew's and Luke's parable of the mustard seed are important to this discussion because in each case the kingdom is said to come gradually. For those who have argued that the kingdom of God is exclusively future, this is a problem, for when that kingdom comes it will not start out small and then become great as the parable indicates. That future kingdom will be great from the start, set up at Christ's return.
The language about the kingdom's arrival is also crucial, since it shows that what the New Testament means by this term is not the ever-present kingdom of God that is his by right as Creator and that is affirmed as present even in the Old Testament (Ps 145:10-13). Rather, this kingdom is the promised redeeming kingdom of God, where he restores his rule and delivers people from a fallen creation. Such a redeeming kingdom, whose authority and blessing reaches into all nations, is what Old Testament saints anticipated as far back as God's promise to Abraham to bless the world through the patriarch's seed (Gen 12:1-3), even though they believed that in one sense God ruled over all nations already.
If we are to make a distinction in kingdom terminology, we could do so between the concepts of the always-existing kingdom of God and the promised kingdom of God as seen in the Old Testament. But when the New Testament uses kingdom terminology (especially with either nearness, preaching or arrival terminology), it speaks of the kingdom of promise and the program associated with it, a kingdom that did not exist in the Old Testament and was anticipated to come by the saints of old.
Jesus' rulership ultimately involves both material and spiritual elements, as the hymn of Zechariah shows (Lk 1:67-79; Bock 1993). Both elements are always present, whether one is considering Jesus' first coming, his rule from heaven or his rule upon his return. Kingship involves a ruler, a reign and a realm. The presence of God's reign means that regal prerogatives are exercised, so that promised blessings like the Spirit are mediated to those who join themselves to the Messiah (3:15-18; Acts 2:16-41). To reign is to exercise authority over salvation, not just total authority over the total creation as Christ will do at the end. The authority can be present in a variety of ways; some of it can be exercised now and the rest of it at a later time. To save and form a people is one exercise of authority, while to judge is another.
Obviously God exercises his rule through Jesus. The realm of Jesus' current authority is primarily the new community that he is forming (Eph 1:15-23), but ultimately Jesus has claims on all humanity (Col 1:15-20). When he returns he will complete the rest of the promise as described in the Old Testament (Acts 3:18-22). The main prerogatives Jesus exercises now involve the privileges of citizenship in the new community, marked by the distribution of the Spirit (Acts 10:42-43; Eph 4:7-16; Col 1:12-14). In fact, the Spirit's presence itself is the sign of victory and authority, as Acts 2:30-36 and Ephesians 4:7-16 make clear. Future prerogatives include the right to judge humanity (Acts 10:34-43; 17:31).
It is because Jesus is central to God's ruling activity that discipleship in following him is such a priority. To preach the kingdom is to preach the benefits that God has made available because Jesus the Messiah has come.
The third scene involves a request to tell the family goodby. Again, the request parallels Elisha's response to Elijah's call (1 Kings 19:19-20). Jesus' response provides yet another contrast to Old Testament example. The premise again is concern for family. Nevertheless, Jesus interprets the request as a desire to hang on to the old life. This too is emphatically rejected, with a warning that turning back from the task is showing oneself unworthy of discipleship. The disciple's hand is to stay at the plow. The remark makes great sense in a Palestinian setting, since the land there is rocky. The person who looked back while plowing would not furrow a straight row for crops. Jesus' point is that discipleship takes focus.
Only Luke quotes this symbolism of the plow, a detail that stresses the disciple's commitment. Disciples cannot back off from the task. Discipleship is not a second job, a moonlighting task, an ice-cream social or a hobby. It is the product of God's calling and should be pursued with appropriate seriousness.The Mission of the Seventy-two (10:1-24)
The ministry of proclamation is not limited to the Twelve. In 9:1-6 they were sent out on a mission to preach the kingdom, but now a larger group of seventy-two is sent. Jesus does not limit ministry to a select few (see 9:49-50, 60-61). Disciples are called to preach the hope of the kingdom. Luke 22:35 refers back to these instructions when Jesus is addressing the Twelve at the Last Supper. So it appears that the Twelve are part of the seventy-two. They travel two by two to prepare different towns for Jesus' arrival. It is clear from what Jesus says that the task ahead of them is large. There will be rejection, but they can also anticipate a large harvest.
Jesus' concept of ministry does not limit it to a professional level. Everyone is called to represent him. The epistles make it clear that gifts vary and various functions allow a diversity of ministry within the body, but everyone is gifted to contribute to the ministry of the community (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12; Eph 4:1-16). Jesus had an inner circle, but the call of ministry was not theirs alone. This is a major lesson of the mission, but it is only one of many.
Another major concept is that mission occurs in the context of prayer and God's sovereignty. Jesus argues that a ripe harvest is ready for the reaping, but few servants are ready to gather the grain. The association of conversion with agricultural imagery is common (Lk 8:10-15; Jn 4:31-38; Rom 11:16-24; 1 Cor 3:6-7; 1QS 8:5-6; CD 1:7; 1QH 8:4-11; Odes of Solomon 38:17-21; in the Old Testament, Is 27:11-12; Hos 6:11; Joel 3:13). This picture balances out the warnings of rejection that have been prevalent since 9:21. The prayer for more workers links mission and conversion with expansion of the pool of laborers. The assumption is that with conversion come disciples who are ready to share the good news. By asking for more laborers, they are asking for the mission's success.
There is another key point involved in asking God for laborers. Workers need not be coerced into labor; God is to supply them. Jesus calls us to express trust that God will supply additional help for the field. This is why God is called the Lord of the harvest. He is the one who will send out workers (v. 2).
In an age when marketing and public relations strategies often determine how the gospel is shared, Luke provides a needed reminder of God's lordship over the process of conversion. The gospel is not a consumer-oriented product. The consumer is not always right. Of course knowing one's audience is important, as is being sensitive in framing the gospel's presentation. Acts 17:16-34 shows Paul being sensitive to such concerns. But sometimes the gospel is inherently offensive, because it deals with the need to turn to God and understand the debt that sin produces before God. It means admitting to wrongs. Nevertheless, God is at work to change and open up hearts. The disciples' responsibility is to preach and pray, and the results are God's concern.
The difficulty of this ministry means that these disciples should see themselves as lambs among wolves. The Samaritan mission of 9:51-56 illustrates the saying. Disciples minister under duress and rejection. They are vulnerable like lambs before a ravenous wolf. Yet despite the risk, they minister. This image is also present in Judaic writings. Psalms of Solomon 8:23 reads, "God was proven right in his condemnation of the nations of the earth, and the devout of God are like innocent lambs among them." In the same book 8:30 reads, "Do not neglect us, our God, lest the Gentiles devour us as if there is no redeemer." Lambs are a figure for God's people. The world is sometimes hostile to them, but that does not mean disciples have the right to withdraw. Proclamation assumes engagement and service. To run and hide from our neighbors or to wall ourselves off into enclaves is to disobey God's call to mission.
The dangerous nature of the disciples' mission means that they must travel light (see discussion of 9:1-6). They should not be weighted down with numerous provisions. Just as God supplies those who will respond, he also will provide for them. There is to be no purse or bag or sandals. They are not to greet anyone on the road. The mission's urgency and the disciples' lack of attachment to earthly concerns are evident in how they travel. Ministry is the priority. God has supplied others with provision to care for them. This group of traveling ministers is "professional" in the sense that other disciples will receive them and meet their material needs. The labor of such traveling, ministering saints is worthy of material support from those who receive their ministry (v. 7). Believers are to provide adequate support for those who minister full time.
As the disciples travel, they are to stay in one place, not run from house to house in a frenzy. The offer of blessing, "Peace to this house," involves the invocation of God's goodwill (von Rad 1964:402, 406; Foerster 1964b:413; m. `Abot 4:15). It is like saying, "God be with you." The invocation is not a trivial matter, since the blessing of God's presence can enter or depart. If the disciples are welcomed, it is as if their hosts have welcomed God himself; if not, then blessing retreats from the home (Mt 25:31-46 is similar in tone). Those who serve as hosts will feed them and give them lodging. There is no charge for lodging, because laborers should be paid for their ministry (1 Cor 9:7-14). The Old Testament and Jewish tradition stated the same point negatively by noting how wrong it was to withhold such payment (Lev 19:13; Deut 24:14-15; Sirach 34:22; Tobit 4:14-15). The disciples are to eat and drink whatever is put before them.
Their ministry is proclamation and service. They are to heal the sick in the village and proclaim the nearness of God's kingdom. Since they are commanded to heal, authority is being given to these witnesses like that given in 9:1-6. The ministry of healing includes both the disciples' service and the true healing that comes through their preached message of God's deliverance. Jesus provides commentary on such healing ministry in 11:14-23.
In the New Testament, those who have such gifts are able to heal almost as a matter of course. The only failed healing in the New Testament is the failed exorcism that comes after the transfiguration (9:37-43), though in some locales healings were restricted because of unbelief (Mk 6:5). For healing to be a gift, it needs to happen with high consistency. This ability should be distinguished from God's sovereign acts of healing, which God's people should seek vigorously, trusting his sovereign judgment.
These disciples appear to have been given authority that was unique to this initial period of gospel proclamation, but to say that does not entail a denial that God can heal today. The Christian discussion over healing does not center on questions of God's capability or sovereignty, whether God heals today or whether the Spirit is active today. The question is whether gifts of healing are present today. A genuine gift of healing should evidence a level of consistency like that of the New Testament gifted healers.
Those who claim to possess the gift today or to have seen it exercised do not testify to consistent healing rates. I remember hearing one prominent believer, who claimed access to such gifts, say that he had seen a healing rate of about 2 percent among the very serious conditions he had prayed for. This rate is similar to what I myself have experienced with no claim to a special healing gift. To argue that healing gifts continue, but that the rate of healing today differs significantly from that of the first century, is inconsistent. "Gifts" that are highly inconsistent are probably not full-fledged gifts.
God can and does heal. Healing can and should be prayed for, as James 5:13-18 suggests. A few successes, however, do not indicate that the gift of healing or of exorcism is present. Those few successes do remind us that God is active and sovereign. Without seeking to split hairs, I suggest that the difference is important and worthy of reflection. We can agree that a sovereign God is active and present without confusing his activity with the bestowal of a spiritual gift.
But one more word of caution. Believers today should discuss these issues calmly. In Scotland years ago, a charismatic brother and I shared responsibility for a Bible study in which we agreed not to make our differences on this topic an issue. We worked harmoniously for three years. We had vigorous discussions in private and also covered the topic when others raised it in our study. We were committed to honor each other and to represent our differences fairly as we humbly argued for the truth as we saw it. Though an individual community may have to decide what its practice and doctrinal approach to healing will be, all believers should work hard to respect and understand one another's point of view.
When the disciples gave evidence of God's nearness through healing, they were also to proclaim the kingdom's nearness (a definition of the kingdom is given in the commentary on 9:57-62). Luke 10:11 raises a question: if the kingdom is near, does this mean it approaches or it arrives? In the Lukan context the key is not the term near but the preposition associated with being near, upon (epi). The idiom present here is like Daniel 4:24, 28 (Theodotion), where the arrival of a given time is the issue. The preposition is spatial and looks not just to approach but also to arrival. The point is that the healings evidence the presence of God's rule. The disciples proclaim a special time of divine activity. Luke 10:17-18 confirms this picture with its image of Satan's fall.
To say the kingdom has arrived is not to say that everything associated with it has come. It is clear from texts like Acts 1:6-8 and 3:18-22 that more is expected in the kingdom program. Proclamation and healing form a verbal, pictorial union of word and deed that evidence the truth of the disciples' message. Such a mixture of word and deed is also a powerful testimony today, even when the deed is an act of compassion rather than a miracle. When we proclaim God's love and show God's compassion concretely, the word takes on a dimension it otherwise might lack.
When rejection occurs, the stakes of refusal are also to be made clear. To shake off the dust . . . that sticks to our feet is to declare a separation between the city and God (9:5; Acts 13:51; 18:6). The rejection stands in testimony against those who reject. The symbolic act of departing the city, including leaving its dust behind, shows that the city stands alone before God. It must answer for its actions. To reject God and then have to face him is a fearful thing. The cities that reject the message are warned that the kingdom came near, but opportunity was missed. Only accountability remains. The invocation of a more tolerable judgment for Sodom indicates just how serious that rejection is, since Sodom is one of the ancient Scripture's most wicked cities. It was turned to dust by God's judgment against sin.
The disciples' mission reveals basic choices. The kingdom of God is not a trivial subject. Their preaching about it has serious benefits and consequences. The preaching of that message today carries precisely the same significance. The series of woes against Korazin, Bethsaida and Capernaum show how seriously Jesus takes their mission. Tyre and Sidon, two cities whose reputation rivals that of Sodom, will come out better in judgment than these Galilean cities (Is 23; Jer 25:22; 47:4; Ezek 26:3--28:24; Joel 3:4-8; Amos 1:9-10). Those sinful cities would have repented, as evidenced by their willingness to sit in sackcloth and ashes (1 Kings 20:31-32; 2 Kings 19:1; 1 Chron 21:16; Neh 9:1; Esther 4:1-3; Joel 1:13; Amos 8:10). The sackcloth would have been made of animal's hair, usually that of a goat. What Jesus' remarks mean is that these cities stand at the bottom of the list, subject to God's harshest judgment. Lest there be doubt about the reality of the judgment to come, Jesus says to Capernaum that it will go down to the depths. To reject the message of the kingdom is to face the judgment of rejection by the God who offers that kingdom. The woes' seriousness is underlined when Jesus says, "He who listens to you listens to me; he who rejects you rejects me; but he who rejects me rejects him who sent me." The disciples represent him; the messenger cannot be separated from the One who stands at the center of the message.
When the disciples return from their mission, they are thrilled at the power they possess--"Even the demons submit to us in your name." Jesus' response to them shows yet again why the disciples must "listen to him" (9:35). Their excitement is understandable, but they must be careful to be excited about the right things.
Jesus does pause to respond to their observation about demons by giving a verbal picture of their fall. His words suggest the language of Isaiah 14:12. Jesus' report of the observation suggests that their ministry represents the defeat of Satan, the archaccuser (Oepke 1965:213). In Judaism and in later rabbinics, Satan's end was associated with Messiah's arrival (1 Enoch 55:4; Jubilees 23:29; Testament of Simeon 6:6; Testament of Judah 25:3). The New Testament often portrays the cross or the Second Coming as such a turning point (Jn 12:31-32; Col 2:14-15; Rev 12:10-12; in two final, future rebellions, Rev 20:1-3, 7-10). Luke 11:20-23 also puts the defeat in terms of events in Jesus' first coming. Of course, all these points in Jesus' career contribute to Satan's defeat. These are not either-or options, but both-and. In fact, the following remarks in verse 19 underscore the connection.
Jesus proclaims the disciples' authority over serpents and scorpions, creatures that symbolize the presence of Satan (on Satan as enemy, Foerster 1964d:813-14; Grundmann 1965:400; Foerster 1967:579; 2 Cor 11:3; Testament of Dan 6:1-4; 3 Baruch 13:1-3). Here Jesus is not endorsing snake handling but stating that the disciples now possess the power to resist Satan. Nothing will harm them. Jesus makes this last statement very emphatically, since the Greek term ouden ("nothing") is in the emphatic position and the emphatic Greek particles ou me ("shall not") are used.
Despite all this, Jesus urges the disciples to see that their power is not the major blessing. They should rejoice not so much because evil forces are subject to them, but because their names are written in heaven. The real blessing is to possess life and be enrolled among heaven's permanent citizens. Here is the source of constant joy. The present imperative for rejoice (chairete) in verse 20 indicates that they should constantly rejoice in the fact that the great census of God contains their names. Jesus alludes to the "book of life" here (Ex 32:32; Ps 69:28; Is 4:3; Dan 7:10; 12:1; Phil 4:3; Rev 3:5; 20:12, 15; 21:27; Schrenk 1964a:619-20; Traub 1967:532 n. 295). Ministry with God is a privilege, and access to God's power is exciting, but the real cause of joy is that we have true and everlasting life before God.
The mission completed, Jesus turns to his heavenly Father and rejoices, underlining the point he has just made. His gratitude and joy are for the Father's sovereign choice to reveal himself to little children (1 Cor 1:25-31). As at the beginning of the mission, God's guiding hand is emphasized. The sovereign God did not seek out intellectuals (the wise and learned) but the humble. This was his good pleasure, his gracious will. He honors those who rely on him, not on their own faculties.
But God is not working alone. He and Jesus are intimately linked. In words reminiscent of those reported in the Gospel of John, Jesus says, "All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows who the Son is except the Father, and no one knows who the Father is except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him." Now the Father's sovereignty is tied to the Son. They share authority. What God has put together, no human being can separate. This is why the kingdom message from Jesus should be taken so seriously. To hear Jesus' voice is to hear the authority of the Father. To deal with God, one must deal with Jesus.
The theme of rejoicing continues as Jesus turns back to the disciples and blesses them. They should feel happy and honored because they are seeing things that the prophets and kings longed to see (1 Pet 1:10-12). This passage emphasizes that what Jesus is doing is what the saints of the Old Testament had hoped to see. Many great saints of the old era did not get to experience the blessing, but Jesus' disciples are blessed to be a part of this new era. The statement recalls 7:28: the lowest person in the kingdom is higher than the greatest prophet of the old era.
Sometimes we think how great it would have been to see Moses perform miracles before Pharaoh or watch Elijah defeat the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. Jesus says that the situation is in fact the exact reverse--they long to see what we experience, because to know God and life through Jesus is what they had wished to experience all along. In effect, Jesus says, "Count your blessings, for they are many and have been desired for centuries."
Considering the mission as a whole, four points stand out: (1) God is sovereign, and that sovereignty includes the central role of Jesus. (2) Disciples are to serve God in dependence, resting in his provision. (3) The stakes in the gospel message are high, since blessing or divine rejection rides on how one responds. (4) More important than power is the honor of possessing life with God. Such blessing is cause for joy. The great saints of the Old Testament appreciate the unique blessing that belongs to disciples. So we should never take for granted what others longed to have.