Your Opportunity to Bear Witness
Your Opportunity to Bear Witness
St. Luke 21:5-19
Everybody wants to know the future. Astrology is a booming business and it always has been. And Christians aren’t immune. Even though the Bible warns us to stay away from fortune-tellers and false prophets, down through the centuries we’ve spawned our own doomsday and end-time movements. There are cults out there that claim to have figured out the key to “Bible prophecy” and they use that to hook gullible Christians who don’t know Scripture as well as they should. But you don’t have to look to cults to find unhealthy obsession with “Bible prophecy” and “end times” speculation. There are plenty of preachers on TV and books in otherwise orthodox Christians bookstores that are making millions of dollars off Christians who want to know the future. It surrounds us. We hear doom and gloom from the news, the Christian culture warriors whip us into a frenzy by telling us how we’re being persecuted and how the day after tomorrow the secularists will be rounding us up to feed us to the lions, and in our desperation we want to know “how” and we want to know “when” and we want to know what we can do about it. It’s easy to turn to the people on TV and in the books who claim to be experts. It doesn’t help that many pastors who aren’t studying and reading what they should get caught up in it and inadvertently feed the frenzy.
But this is nothing new. There have been Christians speculating unhealthily on these sorts of things for two thousand years and there were Jews who have been doing the same thing since long before the time of Jesus. As I’ve said before, in the First Century the Jews’ expectation of the Messiah’s coming had reached a fevered pitch. Jesus wasn’t the first person to claim to be the Messiah and he wasn’t the last and many people, in their desperation for a better world were ready to follow anyone who made the claim. In part, this is why so many people were ready to follow Jesus even though he didn’t meet their expectations of what the Messiah would be like or do. They were ready for Israel to be vindicated, they were ready for the Romans to be overthrown, and they were ready to latch on to anyone who gave them hope. The disciples weren’t immune. They wanted to know too, especially after all the hints Jesus had been dropping along the way, after all his talk of coming judgement, and especially after he’d upset the temple and acted out a prophecy of its coming destruction. When was all this going to happen?
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. If you remember, over the course of Luke 19 and 20, Jesus has been teaching in the temple. It began with him overturning the tables of the merchants and moneychangers and rebuking the religious leaders of Israel. He didn’t run away and hide like you might expect after something like that. Instead, he stayed in the temple and for the week that has followed, he’s been alternately teaching the people about the kingdom and rebuking the chief priests, elders, and scribes. In verses 1-4, last Sunday, we saw Jesus and his friends in the outer court of the temple where the people were putting their money in the treasury collection boxes. From there you could look up to see the temple itself. Fifty years before, Herod the Great had started a massive project to expand and to beautify the temple. His son carried on the project. It would go on for another forty years, completed just in time to be destroyed. But looking up from the outer court, there it was: huge, covered in glistening white marble and plates of beaten gold. It was impressive. And no matter how much the people despised Herod, they loved the temple. It was the centre of the nation, religiously and politically. It embodied their identity and their history, which was the story of how the Lord had chosen Abraham and his descendants from amongst the nations to be his people. The temple embodied who the people were and it embodied all their future hopes. People travelled there from all over Judaea and they stood in amazement at the great edifice of the temple, they thanked God for having chosen them from amongst the nations, and they prayed that he would return them to greatness. Jesus overhears the people in the court ooh-ing and ah-ing over the temple and he responds. Look at Luke 21:5-6.
And while some were speaking of the temple, how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, he said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
Jesus is a bit of a wet blanket. Here are visitors from the far reaches of the country marveling at the greatness of the temple and Jesus points out that its days are numbered. One day it will all be destroyed. Again, this isn’t just any building; this is the building that embodies the identity and the history and the hope of Israel. This isn’t what the people marveling at the temple and thinking of Israel’s greatness want to hear.
I think of the iconic scene from the movie Independence Day. A huge alien mother ship hovers over the White House, sends down it’s green ray of destruction, and the White House dramatically explodes. It was just one building but in destroying that one building the invading aliens destroy the nation and the people embodied by the building. That might give you a sense of what talk of destroying the temple would mean. The last time the temple was destroyed it symbolised the Lord’s abandonment his people to the Babylonians because of their sins. No one wanted or expected that to happen again.
Jesus has been talking a lot about this during the last week and so the disciples finally ask:
“Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?” (Luke 21:6)
The destruction of the temple might as well have been the end of the world as they knew it. It was serious business if Jesus really meant it and they’re starting to believe that Jesus really did mean it. So when is it going to happen? Natural human curiosity. We want to know the future—especially when we’re expecting something really big or really disastrous. Again, this is how “Bible prophecy” teachers on TV and in the bookstores get rich. This is how cults are able to deceive people. You can make even more money if your insider information offers escape from the tribulation of the last days as many of these teachers do.
In response to them, Jesus does tell them about the signs and he even gives them a timeline of sorts, but notice what he does first. Look at verses 8-9:
And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.”
Notice: They want to know the future. They want to know the sings of the “end times”. And the very first thing Jesus gives them in response is a warning: “See that you are not led astray!” Do not believe everything you hear. Do not believe everything you see. Do not let false teachers and false messiahs lead you astray. And keep your wits about you. Do not let anyone whip you into a frenzy or into a panic over the events that are going to take place.
What Jesus had in mind in warning his disciples were the men who would come claiming to be the Messiah or calling for the people to revolt in the Lord’s name. Jesus knew that men like the Zealots would try to recruit his followers. Wars and tumults were at hand. The world was then living in the peace that had been forged by Caesar and settled by Octavian, but that peace would fall apart in the coming decades. Rome would be thrown into turmoil and so would Judaea and Jerusalem. The Zealots and other revolutionary groups would be calling on the men of Israel to take up their swords in open revolt. Some of these groups would be led by men claiming to be the Messiah. Awful things would happen, but Jesus calls his disciples to exercise discernment. He urges them to stick to the teaching he has given them. Those who live by the sword will die by the sword. The kingdom will not come through violence. They might remember Jesus weeping over Jerusalem because she did not know the things that make for peace. Jesus reminds his friends: the way of the kingdom is the way of humility, the way of sacrifice. In just a few more days he will show them that the way of the kingdom is the way of the Cross.
So, first, don’t let these false teachers and their movements whip you into a frenzy. Don’t let yourself be panicked by them. And definitely do not cast aside the principles of the kingdom as these hot-heads call on you to take up your swords against the enemy. This isn’t the end. War and tumult must take place first. Don’t worry. The times will be difficult, but the Lord is still in charge; he’s still sovereign; he hasn’t forgotten you!
Brothers and sisters, you and I live this side of the events Jesus describes, but these are nonetheless important warnings for us to hear too. I see Christians hooked by cults because they become entranced by their sensational teaching on the “end times”. Many Christians these days are so distracted with speculation about what’s going to happen that they fail to live for Jesus’ kingdom today. I’ve observed that the most popular teachings on end times chronology these days are those that involve the so-called “rapture”—teaching that offers escape from this world and its tribulations—whereas Jesus teaches us, as we’ll see shortly, that the trials and tribulation of this world are opportunities to witness his kingdom and to make it known right here in the midst of sin and death, showing the world that Jesus is Lord and that he’s conquered the true enemies of humanity.
And, I think, particularly relevant is Jesus warning not to follow after those who call us to take up the sword as did those who brought the Romans down on Jerusalem. We are surrounded today by hostile forces, whether Islamists in the Middle East or secularist forces here at home. Many of the voices around us urge us to fight back, whether literally to take up a sword or to take it up through the democratic process, voting for Caesar to use his swords and his guns on our behalf against our enemies, we must remember that this is not the way of the Cross. New Testament scholar Darrell Bock says this:
“The church is not called to enforce dominion on those around it; rather, we as a community will suffer as Christ did, until he returns. To forget we bear a cross and not a sword in this era is to abandon a basic aspect of our calling: to proclaim, reflect, and serve Jesus. Only in the end will we be rescued from pain and rejection. Theologies that promote the triumph of the church outside the return of Jesus forget where the source of vindication resides. He is the one who brings the victory, not we. Those who are not prepared to stand as witnesses before the world, which does not understand him, do not understand the call God gives to his church.”
The kingdom of God was inaugurated as Jesus humbly gave his life on the Cross. Jesus did not vindicate himself. God vindicated him when he came in judgement on Israel and her temple. In destroying the old temple he vindicated Jesus: Jesus’ prophecies were proved to be true and the old temple was destroyed, leaving Jesus standing as the new and better temple not built with hands. And Jesus calls his people—he calls us—to follow in his footsteps. He urged his disciples here not to seek their own vindication. When faithless Israel was judged by God, destroyed and scattered, it left the Church standing as Israel’s faithful remnant. God vindicated his people and he will do so again. We’re now called to spread Jesus’ dominion—that’s what “mission” is all about—but Jesus’ kingdom is made known, it’s declared, it’s spread in the same way in which it was inaugurated: as Jesus’ people offer their lives in humble service to others just as Jesus our King gave his life for us. Yes, judgement will come on those who reject the King and his Kingdom, but not at our hands.
Instead Jesus describes a very different mission for his people. War and disaster were coming. Unfaithful Israel would bring much of it on herself. Josephus tells us that a million people died in Jerusalem during the siege of the city. Famine and disease killed many of them. Food was so scarce that he tells us mothers actually cooked and ate their own children. But, Jesus says to his disciples, before all that happens, be prepared. Look at verses 10-12.
Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.
Luke had to have in mind the events he would write about in Acts, the sequel to his gospel. The book of Acts records the persecution of the first Christians at the hands of the Jewish authorities and then the Romans. Think of Stephen, the first martyr, who so outraged the Jews by preaching the Good News that they dragged him outside the city and stoned him. Think of Paul, repeatedly imprisoned, stoned, beaten, dragged before magistrate after magistrate and official after official until his final appeal to Caesar set him on a journey to Rome where he would proclaim the Good News in the heart of the empire. And all of this, Jesus says, will be for the sake of his name. In verse 13 he says:
This will be your opportunity to bear witness.
Brothers and sisters, do we think of persecution as an opportunity to bear witness? I think most modern Christians in the West pray that persecution will never come to us. In many of our churches there’s simply on place for it. Too many churches preach nothing more than that God wants you happy, healthy, and wealthy. In the Christian bookstores the best-sellers always on prominent display are either the sensationalist “end times” books and, right next to them, the books by perpetually grinning preachers assuring you that God wants you happy and rich. In the crossover between them are the end times books that assure Christians that they’ll be “raptured” out of the world before they have to face this kind of tribulation. Brothers and sisters, Jesus says not to be led astray by such false teaching. Persecution is our opportunity to bear witness to the kingdom, first by responding as Jesus did: praying for, serving, loving our enemies, and then preaching the saving lordship of Jesus as we stand before them. Look at verses 14-19:
Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives.
Think of Stephen again. Luke tells his story in Acts 6 and 7. He preached the Good News that Jesus is Lord to the Jews. He apparently told them what Jesus said about the coming destruction of the temple and they used that to make accusations against him and to stone him. And yet as he stood before the council, in the power of the Spirit, he told the story of Israel, from Abraham to Jesus. Luke says that “they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.” As he stood before his persecutors, Jesus gave him “a mouth and wisdom, which none of [his] adversaries [could] withstand or contradict.”
Does this mean we shouldn’t prepare ourselves? Not at all. Stephen knew the story he preached because he’d been preaching it and living it for years. It was a story of which he was a part. He knew the Scriptures because he had steeped himself in them all of his life. He had the knowledge, he had the understanding, he had the words, but in that moment the Spirit also gave him wisdom to put it all together as it needed to be heard in that time, in that place, with those people.
But his witness didn’t stop with his words. Just as Jesus said would happen, the people stoned him. And yet as the stones broke his bones and crushed his body he cried out loud enough for everyone to hear: “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” Even as he died he prayed for his enemies—not just people who didn’t like him or even people who hated him, but people who were at that moment killing him. Again, as Jesus said: This will be your opportunity to witness.” And despite being hated, despite being martyred for the sake of his name, Jesus still says that not a hair of our heads will perish. Our hair may go up in flames at the stake as it did for many of our brothers and sisters in those days, but in the end, we will be vindicated by God just as Jesus was. As Jesus said back in 9:24, “Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.”
Again, Brothers and Sisters, you and I live on the opposite side of these events and on the opposite side of the destruction of the temple, but as we await Jesus’ final coming, the words he gave his disciples apply to us as much as they did to them. We’ll continue with the passage next week, but I’ve stopped with verse 19 today to make a point. The disciples wanted to know the timeline. They wanted to know the future. And Jesus will explain these things to them, but before he does, he tells them something even more important: he gives them these warnings we’ve read today. They’re warnings that many Christians today have forgotten in our obsession with all things “end times”. We need to heed Jesus’ warnings. We need to exercise discernment, which is sadly lacking in much of the modern Church. Don’t run after every preacher who claims to be able to tell you God’s timeline. The truly troubling thing I see is that these “Bible prophecy” teachers who read with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other are consistently wrong. The timelines they teach consistently fail to pan out the way they predict, and yet Christians continue to listen to them and support them and in doing so we discredit our witness to the Good News, we discredit Holy Scripture, and we discredit the Lord Jesus. Friends, we need to exercise discernment and we need to be cautious. Most of all, we need to do the hard work of reading, studying, and meditating on Scripture. It may not have the flair and the sensationalism and the instant gratification of the “Bible prophecy” hacks, but doing so will keep us firmly in the way of the cross.
And that’s my second point: We need to remember that Jesus promises not escape from persecution, but that we will face persecution as an opportunity to bear witness to him. The shape of the Christian life is cruciform. We walk the way of suffering and sacrifice. We make Jesus known to the people and the world around us not by the sword, not by violence, and not by force, but through humble service as we pray for our enemies, do good to them, and love them even as they do the opposite to us.
And third, finally, as Jesus says, we “endure”. That doesn’t mean that we lay low and hope our faith flies under the radar of our enemies. “Enduring” isn’t a passive existence. Again, when we look at the examples of this very principle that Luke gives us in the book of Acts, “endure” means to be actively proclaiming the Good News and actively making Jesus known as we do good: as we help the poor, heal the sick, comfort the captive, and in every other way we can, manifest the redemption and restoration of Creation in the world around us. Stephen was preaching Jesus in the synagogue when his enemies decided to stone him. Paul was arrested as he told Stephen’s story and related his own conversion. At the end of the book of Revelation, John describes Jesus sitting on his throne at the centre of the restored creation and he declares, “Behold, I make all things new.” Jesus began this process of redemption and recreation at the Cross and when he calls us to endure, its’ not a call to sit passively by, waiting for him to finish the job. From his throne in the New Jerusalem Jesus calls back into history, he calls back to us and announces that he is making all things new and in doing that he gives us hope and strengthens our faith, he reminds us that he has renewed us and he calls us to “endure” by making his kingdom known, here and now, and working with him to change the face of the world through love, through humility, through sacrifice in his name.
Let us pray: Heavenly Father, thank you for the assurance you have given us in your Son, Jesus. We are so often anxious, impatient, and fearful of what the future may hold. We’re so easily enticed to respond with anger, with violence, and with force. But you give us hope and in that hope you give us reason to walk in faith, trusting you. Give us the grace to rest in your sure Word, give us grace as we live in the midst of turmoil and hostility, to hear Jesus as he calls back in history to us from his throne. He is making all things new. By the cross he has redeemed and renewed each of us, let us now endure in faith, living in faith, hope, and love that the people around us might also be made new in Jesus through our witness. Amen.