Last time I mentioned Luke 12:7 in reference to God’s intimate knowledge of us: “Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered.” But as I went back to that verse and read it in context, I found so much more to ponder. Context is crucial, but especially when reading the Bible. I won’t go on about that, but if you’re interested in learning more, you can listen to the episode of my podcast called Context.
Here is the immediate context of that verse in Luke 12:
“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who can kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows.” Luke 12:4-7
But wait, there’s an even fuller context to consider. It’s tempting to just stop there with the surrounding verses, especially when the editors of our Bibles separate this section from the others and give us headings that summarize it and help us quickly understand what’s going on. But it’s important to see Luke 12:4-7 in an even larger context. What comes before that, even in chapter 11? And what comes after it? We can’t take these little sections of the gospels and interpret them in a way that’s disconnected from the whole. Luke didn’t write his gospel to be read or interpreted that way.
In chapter 11 it is becoming increasingly clear that Jesus is not going to appease the people and tell them what they want to hear. At the end of the chapter, after being invited to dine in the house of a Pharisee, he calls out their hypocrisy by pronouncing woe upon woe. When a lawyer speaks up and says he’s insulting them as well, Jesus doesn’t back down. He pronounces judgment on them too! Jesus is beginning to tick off all the important people, but still, at the beginning of chapter 12, the crowds increase. At this point, Jesus pulls his disciples aside to warn them.
He warns them of whom they should fear. Not man, but God. God is the one who has ultimate and eternal authority over you. He says, “Yes, I tell you, fear him!”
If Jesus had stopped there, his disciples may have been left shaking in terror. But he goes on to say something remarkable. Look closely for the next occurrence of the word fear. “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Did you catch it? First he tells them to fear God who alone has the authority to cast people into hell. But then he says fear not. Which one is it? It’s both. Let me explain. We are to fear God, having a humble and awestruck sense of reverence for the One who created us from the dust and who alone has the authority over our eternal souls. But then he paints two pictures that are meant to dramatically underscore our value in God’s eyes. If God places value on the smallest of the birds, never forgetting them, then we, carefully crafted in his image, are of much more value to him. And he knows us so intimately that all the hairs of our head are numbered. When we come to know and fear this God, calling him Father (which he invited his disciples to do in chapter 11 by teaching them the Lord’s prayer), and also acknowledging him before others (which he challenges his disciples to do right after this passage), we do not have to fear that we will perish at that final judgment.
Let me tie this all to what I’ve been saying about safety. The message of Luke 12:4-7 sums up everything because I think it answers the two questions I started with: 1. Where or to whom do we look for safety? and 2. What kind of safety has God assured us of?
We desire safety because we want to be free from harm, but Jesus warns his disciples away from the fear of man and the harm we can experience on earth. He points them to eternity and emphasizes the most important kind of safety – eternal safety.
We can and do experience harm on this earth, from people and storms, viruses and our own sins and mistakes; none of us are immune in this sin-stained world. But when we realize that God our Father is sovereign and good and is a refuge in any and every storm and will keep us from eternal condemnation on the day of judgment when we place our faith in his Son, Jesus Christ, then and only then, can we know the kind of safety that really counts and gives rest to our souls.