“Do you have a Bible that you can read?”

I think that in the United States too many believers may assume that people they meet have a Bible that they can read. Do they? It’s a reasonable question: “Do you have a Bible that you can read?”

As recently as the late 1970s, even unchurched people recognized a Bible as a big book with a black cover that had lots of “thee’s” and “thou’s.” I think that nowadays we cannot even make that assumption when we deal with people. In this day and age, I think that we can’t make the assumption that many of the people that we encounter could recognize a Bible if they saw one, had ever read one or knew where to buy one for themselves.

So here’s where I’m going with this. Be ready to get a Bible into the hands of others. If you encounter someone who shows real spiritual interest, the question becomes extremely relevant: “Do you have a Bible you can read?”

Here’s a good place to start. Your neighborhood Walmart most likely has Bibles available. I’ve seen them there – decent Bibles for $10 and study Bibles for $20. Many people would spend more than that on lunch. Amazon.com has inexpensive Bibles available as well, and you could order a number of Bibles at a time. Some editions include some pretty good guidance on where to find Biblical help and even a gospel message as well.

Look for a readable translation such as the New International Version or the English Standard Version. This isn’t the place for nitpicky discussions about translation preferences, even if you personally prefer the King James Version. Rather, find one that the normal person can read and understand with a basic knowledge of contemporary English.

Some ministries should pretty much always have a number of Bibles on hand to give to others. For instance, jail ministries often can use a supply of Bibles to hand to the incarcerated. Many, many more churches should have a supply of Bibles on hand as well to give out to visitors and anyone who starts to attend who doesn’t have a readable Bible for himself or herself.

If you encounter someone whose heart language isn’t English, it’s also possible to order Bibles in other languages. Many years ago, I worked with a number of people from Haiti. Their spoken language was French Creole, but their reading language, as taught in their schools, was French. A number of them expressed a real reverence for the Bible as well. I was able to hand out to them a number of French Bibles and New Testaments which I ordered from The International Bible Society (now Biblica). It’s possible to order Bibles in Chinese, Hindi and Pnnjabi from Amazon.com as well, for example. So one of the most precious gifts that you can give someone else could be a readable Bible in his or her heart language.

I also think that parents, grandparents and other relatives could well ask this same question to their sons and daughters, stepsons and daughters, nieces, nephews, grandsons and granddaughters: “Do you have a Bible that you can read?” If not, make one a Christmas gift. If you already give a Christmas gift, continue to give the gift that you normally would – but give a readable Bible as well. Your Christmas budget may be a little larger than usual that year, but to give a person you love what should be very precious gift should be worth the extra expense.

The goal in this is not to manipulate or push one’s faith on anyone else, but to give the recipient of the Bible the opportunity to learn what the Bible says for himself or herself. What anyone will do with Jesus and the message of the Bible is ultimately between that person and God, but if you give the person a Bible, that simply enables that person to investigate and make a better informed decision by himself or herself.

Finally, if someone I know professes faith in Christ, I always make it a point to get that person a readable Bible if he or she does not have one already. It’s all well and good for those of us who have been in the faith for years to have our own Bibles and preferred translations, but it’s absolutely crucial for someone new in the faith to have a readable Bible for himself or herself. There’s a well known TV ministry from the 1950s to the 1980s that had some detractors – but I know for a fact that anyone who made a profession of faith from that ministry received at least a New Testament and often a whole Bible at no expense.

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Abused

There is the name of a prison, in Iraq, which is now a name which brings shame and embarrassment. Abu Gharib prison is now known as where physical and sexual abuse of prisoners took place from 2003-2006. The prisoners were there simply to be detained before trial. No one there had been convicted of a crime, and the cruel and degrading treatment that happened to them at the hands of those assigned to detain them was not part of their responsibilities. The physical and sexual abuse of these prisoners was never a part of the responsibilities of the soldiers who had been assigned to guard them. Eventually eleven soldiers were charged with and convicted of dereliction of duty, maltreatment, aggravated assault and battery. They were sent to military prison and dishonorably discharged for prisoner abuse.

The abuse of prisoners who are simply being detained is nothing new in this world due to human nature being fallen. It’s as old as crime and punishment. And it happened to Jesus, too. There’s a brutal paragraph in the gospel of Mark which describes the physical and psychological abuse of Jesus while he was being detained as a prisoner awaiting execution that same day. This apparently happened during the remaining time before the Roman guards rounded up all three prisoners that were going to be taken out to execution by public crucifixion that day.

The paragraph which describes the prisoner abuse of Jesus at the hands of the Roman guards is a very tough paragraph to read and to let it sink in. But maybe that’s part of the problem with preaching and teaching today: we may be avoiding the difficult passages for the familiar ones which don’t force us to think, pray and meditate on tough things. It seems like in the modern church we rarely deal with the passages which deal with the crucifixion except in the Sundays which precede Good Friday in the Christian calendar year. And too much of what we say about the crucifixion seems to be explaining how crucifixion worked to a modern audience rather than understanding what the scriptural narrative has to say to us today. Certainly we need to understand the historical background of crucifixion to understand the sufferings of Jesus, but I think that there’s much more that is in these passages that God has been seeking to tell his people in all the ages since the crucifixion. So the first thing is to approach these passages with a  prayerful heart to let God show us what he wants us to see in the process which led up to the ultimate victory over sin and death, and what the suffering of his Son means for his people in all ages.

First of all understand that all that happened to Jesus in this paragraph was not part of the assignment of the guards who were part of the Roman garrison in Jerusalem in the first century AD. Nothing that they did to Jesus was under orders from their superiors.  Yet the abuse which happened to Jesus was a crime – perhaps not a crime in the legal sense in that day and age – yet still a crime of opportunity and crime to which the Roman authorities, from Pilate to the garrison commander, gave their silent permission . It serves as a continued reminder of the tough times that that people lived through then, and how those in authority could let additional abuse pile on to the already brutal and cruel punishments for civil and political crimes.

Doubtless many times believers who have read these verses over the years have read these verses have found themselves in the same situation as Jesus was on that day about 30 AD, in the city of Jerusalem.  Many, many times believers who followed Jesus also have had to endure abuse like him when they were imprisoned and on trial for their profession of faith in Jesus. Too often in the North American church we seem to be unaware of the fact that many times throughout history the normal experience of being a believer in Jesus Christ has been suffering for one’s faith in Jesus. We may get very comfortable with the familiarity of sitting and singing in our pews with our family and friends and forget that for many believers in Jesus throughout history doing just that would be a rare part of their experience. Many times they have suffered rejection and abuse from friends and family members for their faith in Jesus, and abuse from the civil authorities as well. Believers over the years have been subject to fines, beatings, imprisonment and execution for their faith in Jesus And when they would look at passages like this, they could find special comfort in knowledge that Jesus himself had been treated the same way when he was detained before and after his trials before the Jewish and Roman authorities.

This passage is also a stark reminder of the cruel reality of our fallen world and  of the the brutal and abusive monsters that sin can make and does make of so many of us. It reminds us of the horrible abuse that may come upon the most innocent among us, when we bear the cross after Jesus. Even more, though, it is also part of the theme of the Bible that God brings the greatest goods out of the deepest suffering of his people. It is part of the deeply laid thread of suffering that can be traced throughout the Bible, throughout the Psalms and the Prophets, that was then fulfilled ultimately in Jesus. It is in the suffering of Jesus,  where we see the suffering of the righteous and innocent in this world, that then finds its answer in the ultimate suffering of the Righteous One, the one that God sent into our world to pay the price for our redemption. In addition, this passage gives insight not only into his suffering for us, of the price that was paid for our salvation. It also shows that the Old Testament salvation promise that was fulfilled in the suffering of the Son, who also redeems also our own sufferings which come in this world. And this passage also starkly exposes the evil of this world for what it is, as we see how the evil of this world treated the holy, righteous and innocent Son of God during this time – and then that sets the stage for his ultimate victory over all the evil that this world had to offer.

“Then the soldiers took him (Jesus) away from the courtyard, which is the Praetorium, and they called together the whole unit. And they dressed him in purple, and, after they had plaited a crown of thorns, they placed it on him. And they began to greet him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ And they began to beat him around the head with a reed, they began to spit on him and  they knelt on the ground and offered obeisance to him.  And when they had finished deriding him, they took off the purple garment and put his own clothes back on him. And they led him out to crucify him.” (Mark 15:16-20, Dale’s sight translation).

As it happened to Jesus, the abuse of this world starts with verbal abuse. All the mockery and degradation which Jesus received is typical of how abuse of other people starts among us in this world. And it is typical of the behavior of the people in this world he came to save. The abuse of the Savior in this world ultimately does point to the need of both the abused and the abuser for the Savior who was abused to the point of his death on the cross.

So often, the abuse of this world happens often because the authorities of this world allow it. Like the abuse of so many in our age, the abuse which Jesus suffered was a crime of opportunity. It happened like it does so often, when someone seems to be helpless to resist and isolated from the help of others – and others see that as an opportunity for cruel fun at the expense of another person. And Jesus himself experienced this – being isolated and seemingly unable – and in his case, unwilling – to resist the cycle of abuse which was poured upon him, with the silent approval of the civil authorities.

“Then the soldiers took him (Jesus) away from the courtyard, which is the Praetorium, and they called together the whole platoon.” (verse 16) This is how the prisoner abuse of Jesus started: the soldiers of the Roman garrison received their assignment to keep Jesus in custody until the time came for the bizarre crucifixion parade. So this would have happened after the official scourging that usually took place before the crucifixion. So when this happened Jesus would already have been bloody and physically traumatized just short of dying. And so the guards saw  the helplessness of this whipped, bloodied and beaten man  as an opportunity for some extremely cruel fun. They then called together anyone who was available and off duty to deal with this prisoner.

Again, as far as it went for the Roman guards, it was not part of their duty as guards to do what they began to do with Jesus. But neither did those in authority over them try to restrain them at all. The guards simply had a helpless, isolated, already bloodied victim on their hands to torment for sadistic pleasure – and while this happened, the civil authorities looked the other way. It’s very probable that what happened to Jesus happened under the eye of the Roman centurion who later presided over the crucifixion. It’s entirely possible that Pontius Pilate also was in a place to witness what happened to Jesus. Each of them could have put a stop to what was happening with a simple order. Maybe they thought that they couldn’t bother with it. Maybe they thought that they couldn’t afford to irritate the guards by putting a stop to their cruel fun. But in any event they did nothing.

Even more, though, when Jesus went into Roman custody, as a Jewish man there was no protection for him under the Law of God from the brutality of the Roman guards. When the Jewish leaders gave Jesus over to the Romans, he had entered the arena where the civil authorities were not restrained by anything in the Law of God. The Old Testament had a number of regulations and limits on civil punishments, on fines and physical punishment and  even on execution as a punishment for civil crimes, notably premeditated murder. If Jesus had been under Jewish custody where the Law of God was respected, this treatment would have been illegal. But when Jesus came under the custody of the Roman guards, he came into a place where the Law of God was not respected and where the civil authorities offered him absolutely no protection against the worst that the sinful hearts of the Roman guards could offer at that time. There was no hint of any kind of even common decency that was shown to Jesus as he was a prisoner under guard awaiting execution within a couple of hours.

So now we can look back and recognize that this is the way of the abusers in this world:  the opportunity for them to practice their abuse is simply a soft target, as Jesus was.  And Jesus allowed this to happen to him. This was part of his journey to the cross to which he went willingly and with full understanding of all it would mean to him. And yet when Jesus allowed himself to be subjected to this kind of abuse, Jesus was not sanctioning or excusing what happened to him. It was as evil then as it happened to him as it could be, since this was, in his own words, the hour of darkness. He took it all upon himself as he served the Father in this world, as part of the suffering of his mission.

Even more, Jesus endured this time without a single angry word, look or thought. With all his experience of the terrible things that happen in this world, and especially those that happened during the last few hours of his earthly life, he still remained without sin. “For we do not have a High Priest who is not able to sympathize with our weaknesses, , but one who was tempted in all the same ways, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15). See how this description of the brutal abuse of Jesus at the hands of his guards is striking not for what Jesus had to say, but for what he did not say – or do. Nothing that happened to him resulted in him saying or doing one little thing contrary to the will of God the Father – not one insulting, resentful or vengeful word slipped through his mouth.  And it is ironic to consider what a great reversal that will happen when his abusers fall into his hands of utter justice, on the day that they face the justice of God with Jesus as their judge as well – but that’s something to consider for another time. Jesus still expects, though,  that his followers will be treated no differently in this world, and that his followers would behave differently than the abusers of this world. He has already set the example on how his people are to act when faced with abuse: they are not to return the abuse.

So what happened to Jesus is the common way that an abuse cycle starts. It’s a crime of opportunity, where the perpetrator finds a helpless and isolated target for cruelty. Or it’s a situation where a little authority in the hands of an angry and deceitful person may lead to a lot of abuse. A person who already has a mean streak and a cruel disposition will often be especially alert to these opportunities. Prisoner abuse is a continued reality of prisoner abuse for the imprisoned throughout the world – and often enough those who are abused are fellow believers in Christ who are suffering for their faith in Christ. Still, though, speaking out and against prisoner abuse has been a part of the ministry to the prisoner which has been a part of the ministry of the church as a whole for over 2000 years. During the Wesleyan revival of the 1700s which gave rise to the Methodist church, John and Charles Wesley often risked themselves often enough in evangelizing and ministry to prisoners. There were often times that they would be locked into prison and spend the night in ministry to men who were to be executed the next day. While the Wesleys were also strong advocates for the abolition of slavery, their work on prison reform was also exemplary of the ministry of the church to prisoners as they spoke out against the abuse by neglect and degrading conditions which prisoners faced then.

So the abuse of this world starts with verbal abuse. It so often begins with the avalanche of ridicule and mockery intended to degrade another human being and grind the soul of another down into the ground. This is too often part of  what men and women do to each other in this world, and it naturally happened to Jesus as well during the hours of his own suffering. It became the acting out of a sick attempt at comedy in the Roman garrison.

“And they dressed him in purple, and, after they had plaited a crown of thorns, they placed it on him. And they began to greet him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’” (verses 17-18). This whole charade, this mocking of Jesus, was a grotesque vaudeville of the homage given to the emperor. That’s where they got the idea for what they were doing. They were mocking Jesus as if he were a fake Caesar. What they used as an ersatz purple cloak was probably just a faded scarlet rag of a cloak – something too worn to use as part of a uniform, but just happened to be on hand for this purpose. The crown of thorns was a vicious and painful mockery of the wreath of Julius Caesar. They made him sit down so that it was as if he were seated on a throne. Then their greeting,  the “Hail, King of the Jews” was just a mockery of “Hail, Caesar!” the clichéd greeting that is common in films depicting Roman times. So this whole hideous masquerade was treating Jesus as a fake Caesar, as a Jewish emperor. It may have in fact been the way they had treated a Messianic pretender or two previously who tried to stir up violent revolution against the Roman government. 

Again, as throughout the entire Passion narratives, it is striking is not only what Jesus did say but also what he didn’t say. When this whole sick parody was going on, he didn’t reply with mockery and verbal abuse on his part. He did not treat them as they were treating them. If we were in that same place, do you think that we would find it easy not to let out one retaliatory insult? Do you think that it would be easy for us not to sneer and mock them back? He lived out the Old Testament prophecy of the Messiah  who was silent as a lamb.  And again, this is what he expects from us when we face the same kinds of things. “For to this you have been called, because Christ has also suffered us and has left behind a scripturally recorded example, that you might follow after his footsteps, ‘ . . . who committed no sin, nor was anything deceitful found in his mouth . . .’. He was verbally abused but did not return that abuse, he suffered but did not answer back with threats but surrendered himself to the One who judges righteously . . .” (I Peter 2:21-23, Dale’s sight translation).

In our modern world, the verbal abuse seems to be something that the abusers find necessary to continue their abuse. This kind of degradation of the soft target seems to be something that they find they need to do, to dehumanize the target for continued abuse. All this verbal expression of contempt for the target seems to be something that they find necessary to go into this kind of abuse. 

So let’s note one of the promises of scripture that few believers want to name and to claim for themselves: “ . . . that through many afflictions it is necessary for us to enter the kingdom of God.”  (Acts 14:22). With the promised afflictions in this world, we can expect deliberate misrepresentation, slander and contempt, mockery and ridicule. Throughout history often enough this kind of treatment may even become a hideous public show that is a part of the severe public persecution and possibly martyrdom of believers in Jesus Christ. But again, here the example of Jesus is the expectation of Jesus. Often we are given smaller challenges and provocations throughout our life as he prepares us for bigger ones, but some may find themselves in the more difficult ones from the start in their Christian lives. His expectation is that we face these challenges and provocations as he did. And something that we need to recognize is: the abuser is not in the place of Jesus but in the place of the Roman soldiers who were doing the abuse. And more on that later. 

One of the biggest challenges for any church, whatever its size and reputation, then, is what believers in Christ do if this same kind of verbal abuse starts to happen among believers in Christ. It does. Too often one person may  become embittered and begin to spread insinuations and mockery about another believer. The challenge is the reaction that the church must have when the slander and contempt start to infect and ensnare other believers in the sticky slime of one person’s hatred. I’ve seen too many times over the years when other believers in the fellowship of Christ then take on and participate in the aggression, contempt and hostility from someone with a deep grudge and a greasy story. Yet where is the repentance when they come to their senses about taking on the grudges and slander of others? We hear about church bullies – but aren’t they suitably described as abusers as well? And when one professed believer takes the place of an abuser against another believer in Christ – there is a real sense in which that professed believer is acting out the same kind of behavior that the Roman soldiers showed toward Jesus.

The silence of Jesus before the verbal abuse he was subjected to has given way to the silence of the church about verbal abuse in our day and age to the great loss of witness within our world. The church for the past generation at least has been embarrassingly silent about verbal and physical abuse as it has happened throughout that time. It was not always that way! If you look at the preaching and teaching of previous generations, they expected more from believers in Christ: they expected believers to be redeemed and transformed out of abusive ways and to be ready to correct and rebuke abuse of other people around them. Even Billy Sunday, a figure whom many might find risible in this day, confronted spouse abuse strongly in his day. And while previous generations did confront abuse more in their preaching and teaching,  they expected little else from the world without Christ, even as they expected much more from the people who claimed to have received salvation, to be followers of Christ. They expected them to grow in Christlikeness under the most challenging and trying circumstances and to live out Christlikeness before a cruel world.

Though the followers of Jesus often deal with degrading words that escalate in their hostility and aggression, it often does not end there. The abuse of this world continues with physical abuse. What begins with the degradation of the soul of another human being with words often continues with the degradation of the body of another human being. And this is also something that Jesus experienced while he was being detained for execution.

The degradation of another human being often continues with physical torment.  The torment intended to cause physical pain shows the almost demonic cruelty of human nature unrestrained by conscience or the Spirit of God. This is what also happened to Jesus, as the gospel describes in verse 19: “And they began to beat him around the head with a reed, they began to spit on him and  they knelt on the ground and offered obeisance to him.”  This mock homage to Jesus as if he were a fake Jewish Caesar went on and continued with the beatings with the stick and fists. There came spitting instead of the kiss of respect and submission;. So this was part of the mockery that the Roman guards gave to the supposed royal pretensions of Jesus.; fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah in what he received;

something which the soldiers would never have realized themselves that they were doing; the foreknowledge and foreordination of God to use their cruelty as part of the signs of the Messiah who was to come, to give it a meaning far different than their own intentions could have ever done; note that there was nothing that Jesus said or did to them that brought on this torrent of verbal and physical abuse: the utter innocence of the sinless Son of God

So then, physical abuse is often the follow up to verbal abuse. Often enough a  little bit of power and isolation may lead to physical assaults shocking when they come light later. And just as shocking is often the utter innocence of the target who may not have done the least little thing to provoke the abuse nor even be retaliating at all.

One thing that we must emphasize over and over is that the abuser is not in the place of Jesus in the world. Rather, in terms of this passage, the abuser is in the place of the Roman soldiers who were doing the abuse –the cliché for a  professed believer taking out his or her frustrations on another believer is that person is, “Beating Up on Jesus.” And since Jesus identifies himself closely with his people and the way that they are treated, we can see that it’s a kind of continued abuse of Jesus with the mocking and beating when this goes on  even by a professed believer. The professed believer that is beating up is actually standing in the place not only of the Roman soldiers beating up on Jesus but also of the fellow servant in the parable who beats up on the fellow servant (Matthew 24:48-49:  “But if that wicked servant says in his heart, ‘My master is taking his good sweet time in getting back,’ and he begins to beat up on his fellow servants . . .’” So what is more unChristlike for any one who names the name of Christ to take such pleasure in unrighteousness as to enter into verbal and physical violence against a neighbor whom he or she is bound by scripture to love as himself or herself?

With all that Jesus went through and with all that the Bible has to say about the Christlike character that Jesus expects to develop from within his people, there is an absolutely shocking amount of physical abuse in Christian families and marriages. And yet  there is very little confrontation of it in the preaching and teaching and teaching of the church nowadays. I cannot remember one time over the over forty years that I have followed Christ that I have ever heard one time that a pastor or Christian leader has ever explicitly confronted and rebuked an abusive husband, wife, father or mother from the pulpit.

And often enough it there are other places, such as schools, where physical bullying (legal assault) may follow the verbal abuse. When it happens in schools, it’s called bullying, and the victims and targets are rarely comforted in the ministries of our churches. Yet how much would it mean to a child who is being bullied in school to hear it  mentioned once in sermons and youth groups as a real evil? And in the days of school shootings, when children in early and middle adolescence have felt it necessary to take up guns because of their experience of bullying, what would it have meant to them to have heard in church that the Savior himself had been picked on, mocked and ridiculed and beaten up? The dehumanization of peer abuse – often physical assault that is illegal when it happens between adults — takes place on an almost daily basis for many in our schools – and too many adults seem to see it just as harmless fun and a part of growing up. Indeed, some, who are not themselves experiencing the abuse,  even say that the abused in these situations simply need to suck it up and toughen up. A friend of mine who was knocked unconscious by three bullies in school during his early adolescence has written that the last thing that a bully wants is a fair fight. So there’s no amount of toughening that can deal with the real and continuous escalation that often happens where the instigation comes from a determined bully or group of bullies – or abusers in training.  And  to understand what this kind of abuse can do to an intelligent and accomplished child, Jodee Blanco told the story of her own years of abuse throughout high school in her book Please Stop Laughing at Me. Her experience was corroborated later by someone who had been a high school classmate of Jodee Blanco: “It was almost like Jodee wasn’t a real person. People could constantly pick on her and maul her, and that was the norm to do.”

So what’s the way out when this comes between believers and into churches? It’s not only for the abused to forgive abusers, but for abusers to become former abusers. And this is possible through Christ, and this should be 100% expected for anyone who comes to Christ. It’s a part of the real transformation that the gospel brings. Abusers love to put the burden of forgiveness on the abused but to take no personal responsibility for deep gospel transformation in their own lives. And anyone who is not willing to undergo the transformation that Jesus brings from the counterfeit love of the abuser to become the genuinely loving person who is being transformed into the image of Christ through the power of Christ renders the credibility of his or her conversion suspect. But this is possible. I can remember a time when I heard a brief testimony of man who had become a former abuser. He had to learn to see Jesus standing between him and his wife. He had to understand that she was his and responsible to him first. And believers in Jesus, men or women, who find that they suffer abuse in such a way may well consider that Jesus suffered in this same way.

The hour of the power of darkness continued on with further official abuse. The horrid abuse and personal degradation of the crucifixion procedure followed his brutal experience at the hands of the Roman guards. What followed was the continuation of the suffering of the totally innocent and Righteous One from the hands of an ad hoc group of abusive soldiers to a degrading and torturous and utterly undeserved death from the ruling government itself.

So this paragraph on the abuse of Jesus while a Roman prisoner concludes in verse. 20: “And when they had finished deriding him, they took off the purple garment and put his own clothes back on him. And they led him out to crucify him.” The unofficial abuse, the cruel waiting game in the morning,  is brought to an end as the official abuse of the official crucifixion procedure began. This transition required him to be given his own garments, which would probably be taken away again within the hour. The unofficial mockery and ridicule would give way to the official mockery and ridicule of the bizarre crucifixion parade to the place of execution. All this demonstrates how hateful and cruel the world Jesus entered was. And yet we so often fail to understand how the recognition of the hatefulness and cruelty of this world for what it is depends so much on the fact that Jesus came and exposed it for what it is;. It is because of him we can recognize the abuse of the innocent for what it is. Because he came and lived out the prophecy that marked him as the Messiah, as the sheep who was silent before it was led out to slaughter, we see the cruelty of this world for what it is.

It is a harsh and cruel reality that the abused often face that the authorities may condone and perhaps even sponsor further abuse and degradation. In our world the wheels of earthly justice no better than the fallen people of this world, the people who are in places of political and often religious authority. So what should have been a protective and corrective responsibility of religious and political authority often goes tragically cruel and becomes a partner in the crimes of abuse. So this highlights the need to hold civil and religious authorities accountable when they are exposed as neglecting their protective responsibilities, and to work for legal justice in our world.

We also need to recognize and grieve over the times that we have discovered that physical abuse has too often occurred in Christian ministries as well. There have been over the past few years a growing number of testimonies of physical abuse in ostensibly Christian ministries and churches. This seems to be due in part to unbiblical understanding of submission, as enforceable by aggression and violence, to use any way they can to change someone else to their whims and desires. I personally had the experience years ago of an older pastor trying to shove my face into an open Bible and yelling at me to read a scripture on submission. For further examples, just to take two, there have been also a number of more egregious stories of the abuse of both young men and women under the Bill Gothard ministry that have been coming out over the past few years and the Mark Driscoll ministry and Mars Hill Churches. Unfortunately these kinds of abuses that happen in ministries purportedly for the gentle and loving Savior definitely mar the witness of the church as a whole when abuse is given a  justification from misrepresented scriptures.

Unfortunately, the silence of Jesus before the physical abuse he suffered has too often in our day given way to the silence of the church about physical abuse in our day and age. Earlier generations did confront physical abuse within marriages, families, workplaces and prisons with prophetic preaching and teaching. Moreover, they often dealt with individual believers and often civil authorities when it came to the abuse of human beings by other human beings. But when it comes to many church leaders and believers today – silence. Crickets chirping. So it’s time for the church to end its silence over abuse – even if it’s been shown to be committed by those who some consider heroes, examples and champions of the faith.

THE CUP OF SUFFERING WHICH THE SON OF GOD DRANK MEANT ALLOWING HIMSELF TO BE TREATED WITH ALL THE HATRED AND CRUELTY THAT COMES FROM OUR WORLD OF HATRED AND CRUELTY. THE SUFFERING OF THE SON OF GOD WAS THE ULTIMATE IN THE ABUSE OF AN ENTIRELY INNOCENT PERSON IN A WORLD OF ABUSE. MAKE NO MISTAKE, WE LIVE IN A WORLD IN WHICH PEOPLE GIVE THEMSELVES, TAKE FOR THEMSELVES PERMISSIONS TO ASSAULT OTHERS WITH WORDS, HANDS , FISTS, FEET, STICKS, STONES, AND OTHER WEAPONS WITHIN BONDS OF MARRIAGE, OF PARENTHOOD AND IN THE COURSE OF THEIR WORKPLACE AND CIVIC DUTIES. TOO OFTEN ALSO THE RELIGIOUS AND CIVIL AUTHORITIES TURN THEIR BACKS, PROVIDE NO HELP OR PERHAPS EVEN ENCOURAGE AND PARTICIPATE IN ABUSE. PART OF THE REALITY THAT THE POLITICS AND RELIGION OF THIS WORLD IS NO BETTER THAN THE HATEFUL, CRUEL, SINFUL HEARTS OF MEN AND WOMEN. BUT THE FOLLOWERS OF JESUS KNOW THAT RETALIATION TO ABUSE WITH ABUSE IS NOT THE ANSWER FOR ABUSE. BECAUSE OF JESUS, BECAUSE HE WAS THERE ALSO, IT IS POSSIBLE FOR HIS PEOPLE TO BE LIKE HIM AND STRONG IN HIM BEFORE HIS WORLD AS WE RECOGNIZE WHAT THIS WORLD IS AND WHAT IT DOES TO PEOPLE, BUT EVEN MORE, WHAT GOD IN HIS GOODNESS BRINGS FROM IT IN HIS SALVATION, WHAT SACRIFICIAL LOVE REALLY IS. THE SUFFERING OF THE SON OF GOD MADE IT POSSIBLE FOR HIM TO BE THE SAVIOR OF BOTH THE ABUSED AND THE ABUSER.

For the abused, then, the invitation comes from Jesus himself to come to him as the healer of broken hearts, broken spirits and broken bodies. Because he was broken himself, he knows what it is like to be broken and he can help those who have been broken and those whom others are trying to break. He understands and sympathizes beyond all others, and he brings healing beyond all others, to where what you have experienced can become past history and not present trauma of the heart, spirit and body.

For the abused, also, take up the place of forgiveness to the abusers. Not because there was anything excusable about it, but because it was inexcusable, and not because they have done anything to deserve our forgiveness. Yet forgive simply because the Son of God who forgave his abusers expects us to do so also. His strength to love and forgive still available to us when we cannot do it from ourselves, and he provides for us to learn and demonstrate genuine Christlikeness in our sufferings.

Then, for the abuser: recognize your own serious sin in verbal and physical abuse. Refuse the excuses and minimization that come from your own habits of self deception and deceit toward others. Seek forgiveness and conquest of your abusive habits and past through Jesus. He can provide the path to replacement of your past of Satanic cruelty with Christlike love and gentleness. He can transform you into what the Word of God calls for, in whatever place and role in the past in which you may have found an opportunity for abuse. He can enable you to be like Christ in that situation instead of a cruel enforcer of your will upon weaker people.

For the church as a whole: recognize the need to recover the voice of the church as a prophetic rebuke and correction to the abuse that takes place in our world. Recognize the call to recognize it, tell it for what it is, work to reduce, eliminate abuse of others in our world. Recognize also as a reason for church discipline when it happens among professed believers, and for the need for removal from office and leadership responsibilities of those in official leadership. Recognize also the need to recognize the need for care and compassion for those who have been abused. Very often enough the target is the forgotten person in these situations; too often the church may deal out some kind of punishment of abuser without compassion or help for the target. Make your ministry for abusers not something for show or gossip but rather a faithful prayer group of 2-3 who can pray with confidentiality and conquering faith for the abused and the abuser.

For all: recognize that this suffering of Jesus was the price of a most precious salvation. This most precious salvation is not something not to underestimated, but cherished and received for the great price that was paid. So love the one who went through all this for you. And if you have not received the salvation which he has provided for you through his death on the cross for you, put your faith in him now.

Mobbed

During my time in seminary in spring 1984, my classmate Max McLean made a dramatic presentation to the entire student body during a time of chapel. His presentation was an imagined drama which went over the decisions which Pontius Pilate faced on the day that Jesus Christ came before him, and he had to make the decision as to whether Jesus would live or die. He was speaking as Pilate as he might have agonized later over the choices that were given to him that morning, the different pressures he was under from different directions. He  kept coming back to the one question: “What would you have done?”

The gospels go over much of the political and judicial process which resulted in the death sentence for Jesus Christ as it happened in Jerusalem about 30 CE. There was more than one hand at work in this situation, though, as the visible political and judicial machinery of the Roman government ground onward to the final result. Surely a serious Christian considering these passages will understand that they showcase the corruption of the political and judicial process in this sinful, fallen world due to the sinful, fallen hearts of the people who are part of the political and judicial process. Many of the parts of the political and legal machinery are familiar to us also from the common political and legal processes of mankind;. We can understand what was going on because we also have some understanding of the way that political and legal proceedings work in this world. 

These passages that deal with the political trial before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate also show what can happen to the followers of Jesus in this world just as it has also often happened throughout history.  Here we also see the portents of the treatment of the innocent believer in Jesus who has broken no laws but has come under the disapproval of those who are in positions of political and religious authority – and make no mistake, Jesus Christ is still as serious a threat to the powers that be in his followers as he was when he was physically here on earth standing before Pontius Pilate. So throughout so many ages since then so many believers who have undergone persecution and probable martyrdom have found themselves understanding and sympathizing with what happened to Jesus, and they would find in the gospels the same Lord who sympathizes with them because he was there first as the innocent sufferer before the bar of wickedly politicized judicial proceedings.

But there is still another hand at work in these circumstances as well. In our age we may come to these passages where we think we are simply observers through the narration, but at the end find that we are no longer just observers at all, but rather full participants in this situation as it was unfolding. To be certain, these are definitely objective historical events that really happened, but these passages tell us of events also with a real significance beyond the past that continues to draw us in now, to where the audience finds that they are part of the story as well, and that they were there from the very beginning. These passages are like a news article about something which we come to the startled realization that we were there when the event happened, but that we didn’t realize it until long after the event happened. The circumstances now that we will consider together involved a reversal of the death sentence for a stunningly and notoriously guilty party and the just punishment which the guilty man deserved was put upon the innocent person. This was more just than a travesty of human justice. Through our view of the proceedings we can see beyond what was happening and look beyond them to the controversial and totally innocent person at the center of the controversy. It is starling to consider that the person , who had nothing to say in this passage, was actually the one in charge of the proceedings from beginning to end. It is astonishing to see that he was the one who had written the script, how the players on this stage around him were acting out their cruelty of their own hearts with him as their intended victim. None of them were really in control of these proceedings, and the actual result was beyond any of them and not within the control of any of them, but it was all under the control of the one person who was there and silent at this time.

“According to the feast [Pilate] would release one prisoner which they petitioned for. Now there was someone called Barabbas chained with the revolutionaries who had committed murder in their uprising. And the crowd which had come up began to ask that he would do that for them. But Pilate answered them back: ‘Do you want for me to release to you the King of the Jews?’ – because he knew that the chief priests had turned Jesus over to them out of envy. And the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he would rather release Barabbas. And Pilate again answered back and said to them, ‘What then should I do to the King of the Jews?’ They again shouted, ‘Crucify him!’  And Pilate said to them, ‘Because of what evil has he done?’ But they shouted out even more, ‘Crucify him!’ And Pilate, wanting to placate the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and, after he had Jesus whipped, he turned him over to be crucified.” (Mark 15:6-15, Dale’s sight translation).

The death sentence on Jesus was the ultimate tradeoff. It was an attempted exchange for temporary political expediency, but the exchange that was actually attempted was not the exchange that was actually achieved. Here, the human political desperation and judicial expediency that sought a tradeoff to and the cruelty of a mob seeking to indulge their own bloodthirsty agenda resulted in the true exchange of lives which brings real life and freedom.

In the corrupt judicial proceedings of this world, there are often people who seek for the release of the guilty parties without regard to their guilt before God and man. The terrible injustice of this world may then result, as it often has throughout human history,  in the exchange of the lives of the unquestionably guilty for the lives of the unquestionably innocent. But what happened then still points to the ultimate human need for real life freedom that ultimately comes from the ultimate need for the exchange of the life of the completely innocent for the lives of the completely guilty.

The drama that happened then, and in which we are still participants, begins in verses 6-8:  “According to the feast [Pilate] would release one prisoner which they petitioned for. Now there was someone called Barabbas chained with the revolutionaries who had committed murder in their uprising. And the crowd which had come up began to ask that he would do that for them.”

The custom of releasing a prisoner at the Passover which the gospel mentioned is not well attested outside the New Testament but not unprecedented throughout the known judicial proceedings of the Roman empire. And the guilty man who was known as Barabbas is unknown beyond what the New Testament says. He was, though, apparently, well known enough that his name needed little further explanation 23-30 years later, when the gospel of Mark was most likely written. He was most definitely an armed robber and a  murderer, and  apparently something of a political revolutionary and radical, a ‘desperate character.’ He may have been part of a criminal gang which gave a revolutionary and political rationale for their crimes.

So here is where the mob starts to become evident. There seem to have been a number of those in the crowd that came to Pilate and they were apparently seeking to have this character released by Pilate as part of the custom. They may have come entirely with that purpose in that mind and they may have already become worked up to seek the release of Barabbas. A few might have mixed in with the crowd that gathered around to see what Pilate would do about Jesus as the Jewish high priests and their underlings dragged Jesus before Pontius Pilate.

The whole size of this crowd that became a mob may have started with a couple of dozen and grown to several hundred in this crowd, may have grown still further as time went on; the gospel writers were not concerned with counting heads in the crowd at this time. And maybe some came not with any animosity toward Jesus but rather simply wanting this Barabbas character released. They may have had some sympathy with his professed radical and revolutionary bent; after all, they were part of a nation that was occupied by the imperial power of Rome and like many at that time they wanted to be free from Rome. But still others may have been paid stooges of the high priest clan; the ‘retired’ high priest Annas, the father in law of the official high priest Caiaphas, was in fact known at that time for hiring and inciting mobs. And some of those there in that group may have even been part of the group that came out with torches and staves, like the crowd of peasants in an old horror movie, to the Garden of Gethsemane during the previous night to arrest Jesus.

So then like now, the desire for political freedom can often result in or be the excuse for deeper crimes in this world of sin.  The human heart, the sin factory that often produces horrible crimes can make desperate characters out of so many, and many others like Barabbas have been produced throughout the ages, and the crowds may call for their release without regard to their crimes. Certainly here we can see the warning not to idolize the radicals and revolutionaries of this world who are often criminals as bad as those they are protesting, such as the current unthinking idolization of Che Guevara and the current unthinking idolatry of political violence by so many. The desperation of the professed radical the actual criminal and the crowds desperate for political freedom simply compounds the real problem. The problem for each of them was not Rome but their own heart. Even John Lennon saw through this, where he advised the would be revolutionary of his time: “You better free your mind instead . . .”And here we come ourselves the place where we realize that we are the desperate characters ourselves, and we understand the failure of our best intentions to achieve the freedom that we crave. The freedom that we crave is really not a political freedom but from the power of sin and death, and that is the freedom that can come only from the Son of God. “Jesus then said to the Jews who had believed in him, ‘If you remain in my Word, you are really my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free. . . . I tell you the truth that everyone who continues in sin is the slave of sin. . . . If, then, the Son sets you free, you will really be free . .  (John 8:31-32, 34, 36).

The necessary tradeoff requires that one would be unquestionably guilty and another would  be unquestionably innocent. But the tradeoff that was attempted then on this basis wasn’t the one which actually happened. The desperation for one tradeoff based on political and judicial expediency ironically, then, results in another which actually is the intent of God in these circumstances. What happens in this situation is the real plan of the one who is really in charge and pulling the strings in these situations.

In verses 9-11 we can see how Pilate desperately and clumsily tries to do the right things in that situation: “But Pilate answered them back: ‘Do you want for me to release to you the King of the Jews?’ – because he knew that the chief priests had turned Jesus over to them out of envy. And the chief priests stirred up the crowd that he would rather release Barabbas.” He obviously knows the injustice of the charges against Jesus. He knows that the previous trial before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish ruling council, as well as the crowds, were being stirred up to demand the death of an innocent man. Here on the platform in the city of Jerusalem was a minor Roman official and politician who was trying clumsily to appease the popular demand and let Jesus off at the same time. He was trying to direct them from the guilty party – Barabbas — release the innocent Jesus. He was faced with a crowd that came with some desire that they dare not express to his face for their political liberty from Rome and who wanted a criminal who had some popular sympathy released instead of Jesus. The crowd kept up their demands for the release of Barabbas when Pilate tried to suggest to them that the Jesus who should be released was the other innocent Jesus.

Pilate’s clumsy attempt at a tradeoff then started to backfire in the face of the crowd that wouldn’t accept his attempt to redirect them from Barabbas to Jesus. At this point the crowds were also being instigated to seek the release of Barabbas by the ruling priests. This would be Annas, Caiaphas and their cronies  — and here they were themselves stirring up the mob as Annas  himself was notorious for doing. They were desperate themselves as now they saw the danger that Jesus could get off at this point. What actually happened here may not have been anything more than them stepping forward from the sidelines at this point to call for the release of Barabbas – just stepping forward so they could be recognized, turning to the crowd and leading them in calling for Barabbas. This would not  have been out of any desire for Barabbas to be free, but from their desire for Jesus to be executed and for making certain that their murderous intent was fulfilled so they could be rid of Jesus and the threat he was to their status quo. Even here, though, no one there got what he or she wanted except Jesus. And note also how often this same kind of scene was repeated throughout the book of Acts whenever the pride, position, privileges and profits were threatened by the gospel and the freedom which Jesus brings – the incited mob, the fury of the religious and political leaders, and the calm of the innocent who were being called upon to suffer.

So despite the best intentions and attempts of many people to do the right thing, those cannot achieve what only God can provide. All the attempts to pull strings and maneuver behind the scenes only play into the plans which God already has made. Our own plans and tradeoffs within the sinful machinery of this world will ultimately backfire, and only God gets what he wants in these situations. It’s so  common throughout the ages, that the murderous hostility of the world towards the people of God only goes to fulfill the actual will and purposes of God in that situation. Even in the hour of his death, as he was being burned at the stake in Oxford, England,  the reforming bishop Hugh Latimer died with this assurance as he said to his compatriot Nicholas Ridley, “Play the man, Master Ridley; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out . . .”

In this world, good intentions, a desperate attempt to try to do the right thing, often does not achieve what we’re aiming for. We still live in and need to deal with the machinery of this fallen world that can crush our best intentions and most desperate efforts. What we often fail to do and need to do is to see beyond the outward circumstances of the machinery to the ultimate purposes of God in that situation. We need to see what God is providing in that situation, and to know, understand and pursue his will in his power before the political and judicial machinery of this world. 

The tradeoff that looked expedient then had been ultimately in the plan of God from all eternity. In that situation God himself was orchestrating the events which ended up meeting the most desperate need of this world. The desperation of this world demanded the exchange of the death of Jesus for the guilty parties of this world. What was demanded in that situation turns out to have been the cry of the real need of this world, of the people everywhere, in every time. The desperation of this world called for the death of Jesus. The cry then the exhibition of a deeper need than anyone in the mob then and there realized. What was then shouted as a murderous demand echoed in the purpose and foreknowledge of God as the answer of God to the most desperate need of this world.

In verses 12-13, then, Pilate then put the question to the crowds as to what he was to do with Jesus: “And Pilate again answered back and said to them, ‘What then should I do to the King of the Jews?’ They again shouted, ‘Crucify him!’  And Pilate said to them, ‘Because of what evil has he done?’ But they shouted out even more, ‘Crucify him!’ .” Here we see the Pontius Pilate known to history. At the end he is just an average politician shirking his responsibility to uphold civil justice. There was no reason for Pilate to put the question to the crowd at all about what he was to do with Jesus. He was the governor that the Roman emperor Tiberius had appointed, and his was the authority alone on what to do with Jesus. But apparently the crowd had become more unruly, and perhaps Pilate feared a riot. So when he put the question to the crowd the ginned up mob called back for Jesus to be crucified instead of Barabbas.

Under the Old Testament Law stoning was the normal way of execution for the purported crime of blasphemy. Twice during the ministry of Jesus his Jewish audiences had already tried to stone him (John 8:59, 10:31) – and it would actually as in the lynching of Stephen in Acts 7. The fulfillment of the prophecy of the death of the Messiah in Psalm 22, though, indicated crucifixion and not stoning. So in the call for crucifixion the mob was unwittingly making themselves part of the fulfillment of Messianic prophecy from the Old Testament. That’s what they were actually doing, though they had no idea or intention that they were doing it. But even more see the monstrous cruelty of that crowd that was willing to trade the life of Jesus for Barabbas. See their  complete indifference to the crimes of Barabbas and their disrespect for the innocence and life of Jesus. See even more their utter disobedience to the OT commands not to follow others in doing wrong (Exodus 23:2, Proverbs 1:10-11, 15).  So they were calling for the legal penalty for murder and sedition for Barabbas under the law of the time to be applied to Jesus instead. At this moment became the de facto place where mob rule occurred in the legal and judicial proceeding around the trial and execution of Jesus. So despite having a hostile governor in Pilate who wasn’t inclined to give in to what they wanted, the mob ruled and their demand for crucifixion becomes explicit and ultimately successful. And though it hadn’t been explicitly part of the earlier conversation, Pilate and the Jewish religious leaders knew that was the penalty the religious leaders were seeking when they turned Jesus over to him to suffer the penalty prescribed by Roman justice.

Here the power of sin to inflame the hearts of people in this world is spectacularly visible. Sinful hearts influencing the sinful hearts of others into cruelty and murderous hatred is shown starkly in the proceedings concerning the execution of Jesus.This shows  the reality is that the crowd often not a restraint to criminal behavior but a goad to criminal behavior. It’s so much easier so often in a mob for otherwise reasonable people to become dismissive of the legal rights and lives of innocent people. This shows that others cannot be our salvation but they do often just lead us deeper into sinful and criminal behavior. But behind the desperate cruelty of the crowds is the cry of the desperate need of this world for a Savior. The shout of the crowd was ironically the cry of this world and the cry of desperate spiritual and eternal need.  Their real need was not political freedom but the freedom which Jesus really brings through the gospel. This was something that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself realized. He became good friends with Billy Graham in the years before his tragic assassination and often attended conferences with the Billy Graham team. But when Billy Graham offered to come join him in the streets, Dr. King encouraged him to continue preaching the gospel to integrated audiences and to support his goals by example and not to join him in the streets: “You stay in the stadiums, Billy, because you will have far more impact on the white establishment there than if you marched in the streets.”

Political and legal authority and power cannot provide for the desperate need of this world, then. The political and legal institutions ultimately come down to the people who are in charge. And they are as sinful and fallible as anyone else and they cannot save us any more than they can save themselves. 

Pontius Pilate admits defeat and gives in to the demands of the mob like the gospel says in verses 14-15: “And Pilate, wanting to placate the crowd, released Barabbas to them, and, after he had Jesus whipped, he turned him over to be crucified.” So Pilate eventually gives in to the will of the crowd. He did make several legitimate attempts to release Jesus, or at least punish him with something less than the death penalty. Even with all the shouting, the crowds never gave him any explicit, legitimate reason for the capital punishment of Jesus any more than the Jewish religious authorities did. There was nothing he could write to the emperor as to why this prisoner would have been executed. According to the other gospels, Pilate did some more waffling back and forth, and part of this drama was the famous symbolic washing of the hands from the gospel of Matthew. But finally he was just and simply a public official swayed by the demands of the mob. He turned Jesus over to the beating, the severe flogging that would happen as the preparation for the crucifixion. He turned out at the end to be simply the minor public official and politician who disliked his position and the place where he was assigned, as well as the people he had to deal with. And so he did what the average person and the average politician would have done in his place. He gave up and simply went along with the demands of the mob.

Make no mistake, here is a great warning here against any idolatry or hope and faith in any political figure in this world! Pilate at least tried to do the right thing, and that’s much more than could be said of many current political figures in many, many decisions and situations. Ultimately, though, our politicians themselves are part of the sinful and fallen political and legal machinery of this world as much as anyone else. They cannot save themselves from the desperation of this fallen world. They themselves are just as much in need of the same tradeoff of the innocent for the guilty. They themselves need the only escape and freedom that they can find for themselves is the same exchange that each of us needs to save us from the sin of our lives and this world.  

Ultimately, though, all this came about with the wisdom and power of God in our world, that he was able to use these circumstances to bring about the tradeoff that we so desperately needed. There are no miracles in these passages. Rather he allowed the tendencies of human nature and the political, religious and legal machinery of this fallen world to grind to their conclusion, come up with the result that they would end up with. The authors of the final result on the scene already directing the end result. God the Father who was sending his Son to be the Savior of the world was there directing the circumstances. The Son stood there as the wickedness of this world brought him to the place where he could be the innocent suffering for the guilty of all times and places. The Holy Spirit had inspired and provided the scriptures of the Old Testament and New Testament so that we could recognize and understand what was really happening here. The God of the Bible was ultimately the one who was writing the script and pulling the strings despite all the people on the scene who thought that they were directing the circumstances. The God  of the Bible was there and he was providing for the Son of God to be offered as the one who takes away the sin of the world. He had already given the world the answer to its most desperate need for freedom and salvation.

AT THE END, WE FIND OURSELVES IN THE PLACE OF BARABBAS, THE CROWDS, AND PONTIUS PILATE. THE SAME JESUS WHO STOOD THERE WAITING FOR THE DECISION OF THE ROMAN GOVERNOR AND THE CROWDS, WHOSE LIFE WAS TRADED FOR A GUILTY MAN, IS THE SAME JESUS WHO LOOKS FOR THE DECISION FROM YOU HERE AND NOW. YOU NOW, WHEREVER YOU ARE, FIND YOURSELF IN THE SAME POSITION HAVING TO MAKE A DECISION ABOUT THE CRUCIFIED AND RISEN LORD. THE BIG DECISION AND THE BIGGEST DECISION IS WHAT YOU WILL DO WITH HIS CLAIMS ABOUT HIMSELF AND WHAT HE DID FOR YOU. THE FALSE SAVIORS OF THIS WORLD SHOW THAT THEY CANNOT SAVE US FROM THE REAL NEEDS FOR FREEDOM AND SALVATION THAT WE ALL HAVE. THE RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL MACHINERY OF THIS WORLD WILL NEVER BRING US THE REAL FREEDOM AND SALVATION THAT CAN COME ONLY FROM JESUS. THE CRUSH OF THE CROWD AND THE DESPERATION OF THE MOB CAN NEVER TAKE US TO THE PLACE OF TRUE FREEDOM AND SALVATION WHICH ONLY IS IN JESUS.

Consider then who you are following: the crowd or the Lord? Have you ever really understood that the crowd cannot save you when you come before God to face him and his justice alone? In that time, if you’re a believer in Jesus, it’s not about being a follower of other people, even other believers, but following Jesus alone. So who are you following?

Consider also: the Lord who stood before the crowd knows what cruelty and betrayal is. And know this as well: the crowd will betray you if you choose to follow Jesus. In those times you will need to come to him for strength, comfort, guidance and direction. This has been the common experience of believers in Jesus Christ in all ages, and not one of us is exempt from this reality.

Consider the tradeoff which happened then. Consider what Jesus did for you. He stood there and took the penalty which the justice of God demanded for our sins. Have you ever really understood that? Have you received the salvation that Jesus came to bring?

Anticipation

Once the question was put to the well known 19th century evangelist Dwight L. Moody: “What is the secret of your success?”

The answer was: “For many years I have never given an address without the consciousness that the Lord may come before I have finished.”

Much about what Moody said is in line with the words of Jesus himself. In the passages of scripture known as the Olivet discourse, where he spoke on the signs of his coming and his return in glory, he gave this same kind of application. One day, in the last week of his earthly ministry, several days before his betrayal, trial and crucifixion, the Lord described all this in a private teaching session with Peter, James and John on the heights of the Mount of Olives above the city of Jerusalem. The three gospels recount this teaching in Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21. Here are two previous posts in this blog on the Olivet discourse (Mark 13):

The application, then,  of what Jesus had told Peter, James and John in the Olivet discourse, about the signs of his coming and his return in glory to gather together his people came at the end of his teaching. In light of his words about his return to take up his visible sovereignty in this world he gives his own application to his people of how to live in regard to the events that will come. Since believers in Jesus have the inside knowledge on the fact of the Lord’s return, it is reason not for calculation nor for speculation but for preparation. The incentive of his return is the incentive to live right and to work eagerly for Christ in hope and anticipation.

With the explanation of this incentive the Statement of Faith of the Christian and Missionary Alliance gets it exactly right:

“The second coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is imminent and will be personal, visible, and premillennial. This is the believer’s blessed hope and is a vital truth which is an incentive to holy living and faithful service.”

That’s the emphasis which is so often missing in discussion of end times prophecy: the anticipation of the Lord’s return is an incentive and motivation to holy living and active, faithful service. That’s the conclusion and his own application of his own prophecy of the events around his return to earth in glory in the Olivet discourse. This the point that he himself came to at the conclusion of the Olivet discourse. With all that Jesus said that day on the slopes of the Mount of Olives, when explained the events leading up to and then his return in glory, to take up his visible kingship of the world, his own words pointed out what is significant for his disciples in the light of the predicted events. It wasn’t about speculation or finding the order of events on a timeline or a chart; it was about being faithful to the very end no matter what would happen as the end drew closer.

So it may seem that many believers don’t really get the impact of what he was saying to all of us in the Olivet Discourse. We may follow the fashionable paths of the conversations about end times prophecy as we have in the past two to three generations and miss the point of why Jesus said what he said. We’ve become caught up in analysis and a tendency to date setting and have too often passed over the call  of Jesus himself to a careful consideration and application of his words to our lives now. Since we have the privilege of the inside knowledge of the fact of the Lord’s return, he calls us not to use this knowledge neither for curiosity, nor for speculation nor for calculation but for preparation. His words are to fuel that incentive to live holy lives and work eagerly for Jesus in the hope of his certain return and loving anticipation of the hour that he is going to return.

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: when the branch becomes supple and puts out the leaves, you know that summer is near. In this same way you also, when you see these things happening, you know that he is near, right at the doors. Make no mistake, this generation will not pass away until all these things come about. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”

“But concerning that day or hour – no one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father. Watch! Be alert, since you do not know the time. It’s like a man who goes on a trip and leaves his house. He gives his household slaves the assignment, each one, to his or her word, and to the doorkeeper to watch for him. You all then watch, since you do not know when the Master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, in the middle of the night, at dawn or in the morning. Watch so that when he has come he will not find you sleeping. That which I say to you, I say to all of you, watch!” (Mark 13:28-37, Dale’s sight translation).

Believers in Jesus Christ must first of all pay attention for the signs of his return. His expectation is that they would have a continuous alertness to their lives to the signs of his coming, but with a his own reason why they are to pay attention. His expectation is what his followers, forearmed with the knowledge of his return and the preceding events, would first of all not be caught up in the routines of this world. His expectation was that his people were to pay attention to be able to recognize the signs of the end of the world as we know it, to when he returns and brings us the world as he wants it. But this expectation wasn’t to be the source of endless speculation and bickering about differing interpretations, but rather for diligence to be prepared for his return.

It’s extremely significant to understand Jesus himself expected that believers would be able to see and to recognize the signs of his return. All throughout the Olivet Discourse he used the word, “. . . you . . . ” in the plural sense to address the people whom he expected to understand and follow what he was saying. Certainly he meant the three apostles who were the immediate audience, who kept these words in their hearts and passed them down to us. But we need to include ourselves among the, “ . . . you  . . .” in the plural sense as well, just as we do throughout the entire New Testament whenever we see that expression used and it cannot be restricted just to that particular place and time by a qualification that arises directly from the immediate context. Jesus used the word, ‘’ . . . you . . . “ in the plural sense with the expectation that believers throughout all ages would be able to compare what he had already explained with what was happening and to be able to tell that he was very near. His expectation was that his explanation of what would happen at the time of his return would give enough of an indication that he was ready to return and that his arrival was just around the corner.

So the first part of this is the lesson from the fig tree, in verses 28-29: “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: when the branch becomes supple and puts out the leaves, you know that summer is near. In this same way you also, when you see these things happening, you know that he is near, right at the doors. The word which I’ve translated “lesson” is literally “parable.” It could also be translated, “analogy.” It’s noteworthy that this is the second time that Jesus has used the fig tree as an object lesson within the past several days. So here he used a familiar occurrence that happened every year as an indication of what would eventually happen only once, namely, the complete fulfillment of the signs for his return. And the summer, in the Mediterranean climate, was the time of harvest – which goes right back to his earlier talk about the harvest,  the gathering of God’s people to himself at the return of Jesus. And then what Jesus meant by ‘these things’ were the previous signs which he had already explained. This would include the complete evangelization of the world (13:10). The most probable and significant application of what Jesus is talking about is to a definite period of time at the end where all the signs are taking place at an unprecedented intensity — including all the persecutions and upheavals.

The expectation of Jesus is clearly that his followers are to watch for the signs of his coming in all places and all ages. With this he contradicts the idea of the ‘imminence’ as applied to his return as meaning that there will be no identifiable and obvious signs preceding some kind of secret coming before his visible coming. He clearly expected his followers to be on earth and to have his words in hand as they watched the world for the signs of his coming. Even more, his expectation is that the watching for his coming would not require meticulous analysis of end times prophecy but understanding of his words according to the common sense meaning. This would mean that average believers with average intelligence could take his words and understand that he is near by comparing what he had said to what was happening in the world.  Here is a  list of what he had already explained would be the signs: first and most definitely the appearance of the Antichrist, evangelization of the world, worldwide persecution, and then the cosmic signs. All these would and should be something that would be understandable to an average believer with his words in hand and with an eye to what was happening in the world.

The attitude of anticipation and waiting doesn’t require deep and exact knowledge of Biblical prophecy. Indeed, we can see that this simply requires noticing the signs and understanding what they can mean. For example, during my college years, our family dachshund, Gretchen, knew that something was going to happen when my mother started spending more time in the kitchen doing some extra baking and food preparation. So she would lay on the rug near the back door of the house. She knew that someone from the family was going to come back home for a visit, and she wanted to be ready to give her greetings and spend some time with a beloved family member.

Along with the call to watch for the signs of his return, then, Jesus gives another promise for the future: the time of fulfillment of the signs of his return will not be long and drawn out. Rather, from what he said there is the indication that the time of contractions could be approximated to the normal lifespan of a human being at the most. And even more, he adds on the additional assurance that all these events will certainly come to the final culmination, upon the authority of Jesus himself.

This is what he is speaking about when he says, in verses 30-31: “Make no mistake, this generation will not pass away until all these things come about. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”  The point he is making is that there is the certainty of fulfillment within a normal person’s lifetime. He’s not giving an indication not of definite day and time but rather the approximation of the length of time within which the signs will be fulfilled. This restricts the time of fulfillment to within the lifetime of a normal person as the signs appear. The approximation of a lifetime is probably a much larger interval than it will really be, but it is wide enough and sufficient to keep anyone from becoming too comfortable and precise with calculating the time of his return too closely. This assurance then follows his earlier assurance that the days of spiritual, moral and political disaster would be cut short for the sake of his people (vv. 19-20).

He then adds on this assurance and notarizes it with his own stamp of authority upon his own words as more certain than the continued existence of heaven and earth: “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.”   This notarization of the everlasting authority and reliability of his words is also, of course, applicable to all his words, of course. And here he is claiming a greater permanence for his words than was claimed for the Old Testament Law that the disciples had been brought up from early childhood to revere. This stamp,  the guaranteed reliability of his words, then make it no gamble to stake one’s life on faith in and obedience to his word in sacrifice and effort in all ages, but they provide the extra assurance that his disciples would need even more as the end approaches most closely and the trials of their faith become perhaps the most severe that will ever be experienced by his followers in all human history.

The certainty of the words of Jesus is therefore the stamp of assurance on all that he had to say to his people.  Jesus adds the emphasis here since it seems that his veracity and reliability may especially be tried and tested as things come closer to the end. Ultimately, though, scriptural faith in the scriptural Jesus must mean utter faith in his words to the end, whether that end is his coming in glory or the ends of our lives as our bodies succumb to physical death before he comes. And seemingly his extra emphasis on the utter reliability of his own words will be something that is utterly necessary in the final days before his coming, as well as something utterly necessary also for the days up to that time. A complete trust in his Word is not something that can be delayed until the signs are actually upon us. I couldn’t say that if we delay our trust until actual fulfillments are upon us that we won’t fall under the same kind of deception that falls upon the world of mankind as a whole at that time. We can and should rather take his statement, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away,”   as his assurance that the time that things get to their worst that the best is just around the corner, upon his own authority and veracity as the eternal Son of God.

Even more then, we can understand that what Jesus had to say about his return came from the heart of overflowing love and concern for each of us. His words were passed on to us because he wants us to be ready and because he wants us to understand what was going to happen. He wanted us to have the greater trust in his word than anything else that could trip us up in the world around us. So therefore his call to pay attention to his words about the circumstances attending his return in glory is his call of love for us because he wants us to be ready for him. And as I’ve already written, paying attention doesn’t mean a certainty in any calculations of the precise time of his arrival. Rather it still means living and serving with the uncertainty of the precise time of his arrival.

THE UNPREDICTABLE DATE AND TIME OF THE RETURN OF JESUS CALLS FOR US TO SERVE HIM WELL. If our anticipation of his soon return is real, it will mean alertness, effort and consistency in the fulfillment of our spiritual duties. This is the application from the prediction of Jesus’s return that is so often lost or underemphasized when believers get into end times prophecy: real anticipation of his c0ming return means serving him well in this life.

While there will be signs of his return, as Jesus himself has explained. watching for Jesus’s return is necessary at all times because the exact time of his return has not been revealed. He has given strong indications of the approximate time of his return, but he has left it open enough so that there is no possibility of delaying anything until the last possible moment. This is deliberate: he has set up his prophecy in such a way that watching and alertness is necessary at all times because that moment cannot be predicted or calculated.

Here, in verses 32-33, is where Jesus lays it on the line for us about how we don’t know the exact time of his return: “But concerning that day or hour – no one knows, not even the angels in heaven nor the Son, but only the Father. Watch! Be alert, since you do not know the time.” The exact time of the return is hidden in the secret counsel of God, according to what Jesus has just said. What this means is that the exact time of his return was not something that God the Father would reveal to the human consciousness of the Son of God in his earthly ministry to reveal to his people. And therefore since it was not something that Jesus was given to reveal, therefore no lesser being, no angel or human being can ever know that day or hour as well. Since it has not been revealed to any of his lesser servants either, it is deception for anyone to claim that he or she has that revelation. Note also earlier in the same chapter, in verse 6 and verses 21-22, in this same prophetic context: one of the marks of the false prophets and false Messiahs that were to come would be claims of certainty about something that Jesus himself did not claim certainty.

Since so we cannot know when the exact time – the day or hour that the Son of God appears in glory– really is, we can make no mistake about any kind of earthly claims to certainty on this point. Here Jesus himself in scripture has given us the warning, and no clearer warning could be given to the ages afterward about over-precision in the ‘when’ of his return, and against over-speculation and date setting. What the Son of God did not know in his human consciousness upon earth and did not have authority to reveal on earth is not something which any human being has authority to fill in. Whether someone presents himself or herself as a purported prophet or prophetess, or claims to have received a purported revelation from an angel, a lesser spiritual being (more likely a demonic angel of light), there is no following revelation to come that will give any more precision until he appears in the sky in glory.

Watching  for the return of Jesus Christ therefore does not mean predicting the time of his return, and sureness of his coming does not mean certainty of the day or hour. Make no mistake about it, this is a tremendous warning necessary for any who would get caught up in trying to pin down dates and times too precisely.  It is sheer spiritual insanity and the most debased kind of hubris to anyone to claim that something so significant that was not revealed to the Son to be revealed to us. And this was quite deliberate on the part of the God who knows us better than we know ourselves: if he had permitted it to be otherwise, our reaction would be to try to slack off until the last moment in our devotion to him in holiness and service.

So here’s a bit of lore about A. W. Tozer, which is unpublished to my knowledge, that demonstrates the correct application of this statement of Jesus. Tozer sat on the ordination committee of a pastor who was young at the time, and he later mentioned this to me when I asked him about what memories he had of Tozer. While he was himself undergoing the oral examination for ordination into the pastorate for our denomination, the Christian and Missionary Alliance, one of the pastors on the ordination committee, who was known to be really into end times prophecy, questioned the pastor in such a way that it seemed like he was  trying to elicit some kind of precise time or date. So finally Tozer exclaimed,  “God himself didn’t know that – how can you expect him to know that?”

Again, it is deliberate that the exact time of the Lord’s return is unknown to us now and unknowably to us until he does actually return. The reason is motivation: the true incentive of the imprecise knowledge available to us of the Lord’s return is to serve him faithfully now, upon earth. That way he has given us no reason for distraction with the cares of our lives, for passive waiting or obsessive speculation. Rather this uncertainty is necessary for us, to do what is best for us in light of his return in glory, for our occupation and immersion in conscientious service.

Jesus explains this and drives it home with a pretty down to earth analogy in verses 34-37: “It’s like a man who goes on a trip and leaves his house. He gives his household slaves the assignment, each one, to his or her word, and to the doorkeeper to watch for him. You all then watch, since you do not know when the Master of the house is coming, whether in the evening, in the middle of the night, at dawn or in the morning. Watch so that when he has come he will not find you sleeping. That which I say to you, I say to all of you, watch!” 

I call this an analogy rather than a parable, since the term ‘parable’ brings up some rather strict, artificial rules from some interpreters. But the analogy of the master who is away and the servants who are left with responsibilities from him until his return, was a common reality in ancient societies, and the disciples then would understand it easily, and even in our society where slavery is illegal it is down to earth enough that we can understand it easily. The parallel passage in the gospel of Matthew adds the analogy of the thief in the night which was taken up by Paul as well, but Mark leaves it out for whatever reason, and whatever that reason may be does not cry out for us to fill it in with needless speculation. But this analogy would have definitely been applicable to the apostles who were sitting right there. They had been explicitly called as apostles, to be the emissaries of Jesus. It applies to the church then and now, as it has rightfully been understood throughout the ages of the church.

The call to faithfulness assumes that Jesus has already given definite responsibilities to his people throughout his word. From the preceding context also, this would mean dedication to world evangelization (13:10) and taking up the cross and standing for Christ even when it means probable martyrdom (13:11-13). So it would be quite legitimate to apply this to the responsibility to reach the world with the gospel, as in the three definite forms of the Great Commission: Matthew 28:18-20, Luke 24:44-47, Acts 1:8.  Watchfulness therefore means serving and laboring for the Lord, and it is clear that he does not want to find anyone sleeping on his return. This is his warning against spiritual lethargy, slacking off, for whatever reason. In view of the previous context of the entire gospel of Mark, this would mean getting caught up in the activities of this world and self-indulgence and thus becoming the seed sown upon the thorns (Mark 4:18-19). So he himself sets before us the alternatives of faithfulness as meaning reward, unfaithfulness as losing the reward which is his approval. It’s a binary choice, from the Son of God himself. 

So for us to take up and share the concern of Jesus for our faithfulness in service must ultimately mean faithfulness to the assignment which Jesus has given to his people, both individually and as a fellowship of believers. There are so many other reasons that are so often given for us to be faithful in service – following a tradition, maintaining our church’s status quo or even national survival and prosperity. But these are not the incentive that Jesus himself gave, which was rather personal faithfulness to him, to receive his approval of what we’ve been doing for him in the meantime while we have been waiting for his return. It is just like the statement of Charles Haddon Spurgeon: “The fact that Jesus Christ is to come is not a reason for stargazing but for working in the power of the Holy Ghost.”

This entire consideration of the Olivet Discourse should spur us on to greater concern and prayer, then, from each individual and for each individual, as to serving well until the Lord comes. I think this would mean much less attention to our pious platitudes and clichés, which we often prattle to sound more spiritual than we are. It would mean less unfair dealing, childish directions and outright interference, hijacking and sandbagging to our brothers and sisters in Christ as they go along with us along the journey of following Jesus for a lifetime, toward greater maturity and steadfastness in Christ. It means rather for us each one to give due consideration to one’s one level of faithfulness, maturity and steadfastness in Christ first of all.

Jesus Christ is returning again; he is coming back to our earth to rule with perfect justice and to bring perfect happiness to his people. The hope of the world is not some man made utopia but the return of Jesus to bring his perfection back to our world to stay. So while he has given his people advance knowledge of his return, his expectation is not that we would spend our time either in procrastination or speculation. His expectation is that we would be constantly and steadfastly faithful to him in the meantime. The eagerness that we may have to see the Lord face to face, which we may include in our songs and prayers, will mean a steady application of ourselves to his assignment for our lives – and that will not be a burden for us, but our joyous preparation for the life beyond imagination when we are in his presence forever.

The return of Jesus Christ’s return is the reason first of all to be prepared with the most basic preparation necessary, to be in a right relationship with him.  Have you have entered his salvation through repentance and faith in him alone? Do you have the security in him that comes from a definite profession of faith and a life which shows the reality of having truly been born again of his Spirit?

Next, since Jesus Christ is the hope of those who have put their faith in him, that always remains a compelling reason to remain in that abiding relationship with him through continued faith, love and obedience, and for remaining in fellowship with him and with his people. He is the source for the strength to endure to the end as we remain in him and with his people.

Finally,  Jesus Christ is the yearning of those who remain faithful in service for him. All their aspirations and all their desires will be ultimately fulfilled at his arrival. And that always remains our reason for consistency in service to and  to be pleasing to him. That is the reason for us to seek to learn and live out his will is for the kind of people we are to be from his Word and for us to be faithful to his assignments to us in our lives until the end, to our last breath here or until his soon return. 

Overwhelmed

Jim Cymbala, the pastor of the Brooklyn Tabernacle – a multiracial church in New York City that now numbers over 16,000 in members – went through a very difficult couple of years with his daughter Chrissy. She had been the model child, but then when she was sixteen years old she began to stray away.  He had tried to control her with all that he could say and do, with what would seem to have been well intentioned attempts to keep her on the straight-and-narrow, but he just kept on driving her further away, until finally she did not come home one night. And then God told him that he would only be allowed to speak to him about her.

But then, after some months, a note was passed to him in one of the prayer meetings of the church: “Pastor Cymbala, I feel impressed that we should stop the meeting and all pray for your daughter.”

That prayer meeting became an intense spiritual battle for the soul of his daughter. Nothing happened right then in the meeting other then intense prayer. But 36 hours later she came back, and she gave this confession: “Daddy, I’ve sinned against God. I’ve sinned against myself. I’ve sinned against you and Mommy, please forgive me.”

Even more, she wanted to know: “Daddy, who was praying for me? On Tuesday night, who was praying? In the middle of the night, God woke me up and showed me I was heading toward this abyss. There was no bottom to it – I was scared to death. I realized how hard I’ve been, how rebellious and w wrong. But at the same time, it was like God wrapped his arms around me and held me tight. He kept me from sliding any farther and he said, ‘I still love you.’”

Overwhelmed – and finally driven to pray, and pray to God only, trust in God the Father only – this describes many of the situations which may come upon God’s people in this world, such as happened to Jim and Carol Cymbala. These situations are the Gethsemanes that come upon God’s people throughout the ages. And wherever there is a place of Gethsemane for them, they – we – were long ago preceded into those situations by the one true Gethsemane in which Jesus prayed so long ago by himself as he went alone, to that place of prayer, to trust in God the Father only in that time.

The garden of Gethsemane was where Jesus went to pray after he had finished his final instructions to his disciples, the last Supper. And it would be the place where he met the betrayer and the place where he would be arrested and taken into custody for civil and political crimes which he did not commit. It was, moreover,  the place where the series of events would be set into motion that would culminate in his crucifixion, burial and resurrection. That night and then on that day to follow, the weight of the world was on his shoulders. That night the one who made and held together the world found out what it was to be overwhelmed.

Gethsemane was the place where the Lord spent his darkest night, where the weight of the world was on his shoulders. It was the place which marked the beginning of the suffering of the Messiah, the time that he face what it would mean to bear the sins of the world in the next few hours. And as well it was the beginning of the battle and the ultimate victory that the Son of God would achieve over the forces of sin and death on the cross. His experience of unprecedented agony there is a guide to us of something of the price of our redemption, in what Jesus faced during the next sixteen or so hours. And, moreover, the experience of Jesus in Gethsemane guides us to what we are to do when we face our own Gethsemanes, when we face the greatest challenges that we face in following the will of God in our own lives, and we find ourselves in the times when we ourselves are overwhelmed, not because of anything that we have done wrong but because we face the will of God in a world of sin.

“And they come to a place which had the name Gethsemane, and he [Jesus] says to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I am praying.’ And he takes Peter and James and John with him, and he began to be overwhelmed and in deep distress, and he says to them, ‘My soul is extremely pained, to the point of death; stay here and keep watch.’ And he went on a little further and he fell on the ground, and he was praying that it is were possible the hour would pass from him. And he was saying, ‘Abba, Father! All things are possible with you. Take this cup from me – but not what I decide but what you decide.’ And he comes and finds them sleeping, and he says to Peter, ‘Simon, are you sleeping? Couldn’t you (meaning all the disciples) keep awake for one hour? (Again addressed to all the disciples)Wake up and pray that you don’t come into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.’ And again, he went away and prayed as he said the same thing. And again coming back he found them sleeping, since their eyes couldn’t stay open and they did not know how to answer him. And he comes back the third time, and and he tells them, ‘Are you going to sleep the rest of the time and then have enough rest? It’s over! Look! The Son of Man has been betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up! Let’s go! Look! The one who has sold me out has just arrived!’” (Mark 14:32-42, Dale’s sight translation)

The will of God often places his people in situations which overwhelm them. But Jesus was there first. For him, the night in Gethsemane was a night of sorrow and distress. There was not only physical darkness around them, but also on that night mental and emotional darkness started to close in on him as well. Here we see Jesus, as the “ . . .  man of sorrows and acquainted with grief . . .” on the night where he would enter into being, ‘’ . . . despised and rejected by men . . .” (Isaiah 53:3).  And on that night, Jesus was overwhelmed. And because he was overwhelmed then, he went before us to show us what to do when we are overwhelmed.

The night of Gethsemane overwhelmed Jesus with a holy dread of what was to come upon him. His experience was a holy revulsion at the coming ordeal of the cross when he would bear the sin of the world. Someone once described this experience as the ‘presentation of the bill of salvation.’  This is how the gospel of Mark describes it in verses 32-24, in its strong, colloquial, blue collar, everyman style of Greek: “And they come to a place which had the name Gethsemane, and he [Jesus] says to his disciples, ‘Sit here while I am praying.’ And he takes Peter and James and John with him, and he began to be overwhelmed and in deep distress, and he says to them, ‘My soul is extremely pained, to the point of death; stay here and keep watch.’”

The garden of Gethsemane is still there on the side of Mount of Olives overlooking the city of Jerusalem. In that time it was a private garden, and the owner probably permitted Jesus and the disciples to gather there when they were in Jerusalem. Only the gospel of Mark gives the name of the garden. But that was where Jesus came to pray on that night. He separated the disciples into two groups. The group that was closer to him physically were the group of the e inner three witnesses, Peter, James and John. They were earlier the witnesses to the Transfiguration, the Olivet Discourse, and the raising of Jairus’s daughter. And here they heard a little more from him, as he described his overwhelming emotional state to the disciples there.

On that night he was not a teacher discouraged over ignorance of the world, since the problem he came to solve was not good natured ignorance of a lot of well meaning but misguided people. He knew better; on that night he was seeing clearly the defiance and depravity of the sin of the world that he would bear in his suffering. He was not seeing the sins of the series of the any supposed past lives of the people but the sins of humanity, of each individual over the course of a single lifetime but over the course of all time since the sin of Adam.  And he was experiencing the start of the full mental and emotional anguish that would be part of his sufferings. This overpowering mental and emotional distress that was apparently a new experience for his human nature, and indeed, it was a unique experience among all humanity. It was the utterly pure sadness on the one hand, with none of the things that accompany human sadness and make it destructive, the sight of sin and judgment. As the holy Son of God, he was seeing the moral insanity, utter darkness and depravity of sin, as well as the intensity of the wrath of God against sin. His reaction was the perfect reaction of sinless human nature against the horror of the sin of the world. And so that night was the Lord’s darkest night. He was overwhelmed with the weight of the world that was set before him, and that would be on his shoulders as he went to the cross. So this is how Charles Spurgeon described it: “Our blessed Lord saw sin in all its blackness. He had a most distinct perception of its treasonable assault upon his God, its murderous hatred toward himself, and its destructive influence upon mankind. Well might horror take hold of him, for a sight of sin must be far more hideous than a sight of hell, which is but its offspring.”

And so, the promise of the scriptures is not that we would never be overwhelmed ourselves. But note that what Jesus faced here has always been an encouragement to believers in all ages, that he has not undergone anything that we have not undergone before. Being overwhelmed by what happens in a fallen world is not an indication of weakness, but quite the contrary. And yet his reaction of horror at the weight of the sin of this world found far too little in those who claim to be his followers – but more on that later. And being overwhelmed far more often than not a large part of the experience of those who are actually following Christ and who are suffering for Christ in this world, and who may be bearing the suffering of others in this world for the sake of Christ. Just as there was no blame to the sinless Son of God, so also there should be no blame either to believers who are also experiencing being overwhelmed in this world as the weight of this world comes upon our shoulders. And as we follow Jesus in this world, we may well come to see more of what it means to bear more than just the weight of a single prodigal son or daughter, but the weight of a prodigal world.

Being overwhelmed, then, drove Jesus to pray. His perfect example thus provides clear guidance for his people in all ages on what to do when they are overwhelmed as well. There is no better alternative to anyone who has called him Lord and who is standing for Jesus in this world. The experience of being overwhelmed drove him to the one who could strengthen him to bear the weight of the world upon his shoulders. And make no mistake about it, our own eternal destinies, the eternal destinies of everyone around us and who has ever lived, and the fate of the entire universe depended on what would happen in these hours when Jesus was overwhelmed.

In verses 35-36 we understand how the sorrow drove Jesus to pray: “And he went on a little further and he fell on the ground, and he was praying that it is were possible the hour would pass from him. And he was saying, ‘Abba, Father! All things are possible with you. Take this cup from me – but not what I decide but what you decide.’”

This was one of the occasions where his word in prayer to the Father were overheard and recorded. The actual Aramaic word for Father included with the words that he was using, these simple yet deep and profound words. The time had arrived, but now he was asking that it would pass away. The cup was being offered, but he was asking that it be taken from him. The cup was his description of his suffering and death. It was the based on the Old Testament metaphor of a cup that held the wrath of God that was the judgment of God against sin. But there was to be no ransom for the sins of the world except through his drinking the cup in that hour. There would not be any ransom through passing through millions of reincarnations from anyone’s past lives. The redemption of the world, the atonement for the sins of humanity, each one over the course of a single lifetime could only come in one cup of the wrath of God that would be accepted in that hour. The price for salvation of the world  would be paid through the wrath of God freely accepted by the Son of God drinking the cup, and on that night he freely accepted the bill for the salvation of the world.  He accepted the culmination of his mission, in his own words, “ . . .  to give his life as a ransom for many . . .” (Mark 10:45) so that he would become, “ . . . the propitiation for our sins, and not only for our sins, but also for the sins of the whole world . . .” (I John 2:2).

I don’t think that we can see Jesus here in any way to be shrinking from the physical suffering of the cross. He was a man of such physical bravery that he could walk right through a crowd which was intent on throwing him off a cliff. Rather, this was the realization of all that that the cross would mean to him of separation from God during that time through his suffering in his human nature, to the point where he would utter the cry of dereliction: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

So Jesus asked for the cup and the hour to pass from him. He was acting and speaking within the limits of his human knowledge but at the same time he was submitting to the will of God with his unfallen human will also. His brief prayer as recorded was probably a summary of a more protracted struggle of continued, heartfelt prayer that he had before God the Father. And yet he followed with a perfect faith before God the Father and a perfect perception of the Father in this time of crisis. And so he then continued on in prayer with the full submission to the will of the Father.

Again, Jesus guides us what to do when we are overwhelmed. What he was experiencing then may have been and may have often been what believers have been doing the nights in prisons before their executions for following Jesus throughout the ages, and that which is still something that believers are called to do. But even more, if there are no experiences of being overwhelmed and driven to prayer among us there will be no growth and expansion of his kingdom on this world. The further call then is to the place of prayer and submission wherever we may be. This includes the need for prayer beyond the prodigals in our families to the prodigals outside our families — something that seems to happen far too little among us any more.

I would put it that these are the Gethsemanes that believers around us are entering far too little any more – the Gethsemanes of intercession for the world around us rather more than just a continued and perhaps even obsessive supplication for a loved one who may be rebellious and straying – and often enough, this rebellion is the rejection of the overcontrol of obsessive parents who use Christianity to try to control their children. This intercession, where we can pour out our heart for those who are around us who are lost who may not be a part of our family is where our heart reflects more and more the heart of God for the world. And often, isn’t one of the underlying motives about the prodigal often include our family and our reputation?

So where we make the Gethsemane of our lives to be about the prodigal world rather than the prodigal child we declare before God, the world and the prodigal child that our love for God and the prodigal world is more than about our family and our reputation. We send a message to prodigal that it really isn’t about them, they don’t get control with their rebellion, and that it’s up to them to stand before God as a responsible adult who has reached the age of accountability before God. An intercessory and surrendering prayer will often be a part of this, where we seek God and entrust them to God and stop trying to overwhelm them with our obsessive and often deceitful and selfish attempts to control. And when we do so, we will find tremendous opportunities for ministry.

I can’t recall where, but I do remember a story of two Christian parents whose child started ‘hanging with the wrong crowd.’ They were upset and discouraged, but then they saw this as an opportunity to minister to the adolescents from the wrong crowd; after all, the circumstances were bringing them right into their own home. They ended up winning several of their child’s friends ‘from the wrong crowd’ to Christ as they prayed for them, invited them to dinner and to evenings with the family. And lo and behold, their child came back to Christ when that child saw that those whom that child thought had the answers wanted what that child had had all along. So I would leave you with these words from a song from Billy Joel. I don’t like most of what the song  says, but these words should be extremely disturbing to the church and should awaken the church to its responsibility toward the lost and winnable individuals from ‘the wrong crowd’: “You say your mother told you all that I could give you was a reputation / She never cared for me / But did she ever say a prayer for me?”

Unfortunately, though, not everyone will respond to the experience of being overwhelmed by prayer. These are the disciples of Jesus who are not careful to respond to the hour of trial and temptation without placing themselves squarely in the will of God and receive the power of God through prayer. They will then still face defeat in this world, because they are living with less than God is ready and willing to give them in their situation.

So here’s what we see in verses 37-40: “And he comes and finds them sleeping, and he says to Peter, ‘Simon, are you sleeping? Couldn’t you (meaning all the disciples) keep awake for one hour? (Again addressed to all the disciples)Wake up and pray that you don’t come into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.’ And again, he went away and prayed as he said the same thing. And again coming back he found them sleeping, since their eyes couldn’t stay open and they did not know how to answer him.” The Lord continued in prayer even though he could not rouse the disciples to continue with him. They also were overwhelmed. Their distress seems to have come from their anticipation of the departure of Jesus. That would be the loss that they did not understand and still could not grasp. They had heard ominous warnings over the course of the ministry of Jesus which they could not square with their understanding of how the Messiah would act, and that evening they heard the predictions of betrayal and the predictions of their abandoning him in the hour of crisis. And when that time of crisis came they could not even keep their eyes open despite all Jesus tried to do to arouse them.  

The disciples were overwhelmed beyond their spiritual ability and beyond their own strength and understanding even to pray in that time – but that made it more necessary to pray. They were unable to get what was going on with Jesus and that situation, and they surrendered to the weakness of their human nature in that time. Even so, the situation was far more overwhelming to Jesus himself, and the situation did not stop Jesus from continuing in prayer. And note that Jesus was not asking them to pray for him. Rather, he was seeking to have them do what praying that they could in that time to be able to stand on their own when he was led away in chains. While it is true that here we see Jesus seeking to rouse his closest friends to stand with him, I think that we can also see him as a king seeking to rouse his troops to seek the strength stand their ground in the conflict that he knew they would face. And three times Jesus rebuked them, and both the second and final rebuke very ironic and show his extreme disappointment. But eventually the lesson did come home to them, much later and here is the lesson that was recorded by Peter: “Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring ion looking for someone to devour.” (I Peter 5:8 ).

Likewise, being overwhelmed to the point of exhaustion, to being unable even to pray has often been the experience of believers throughout this world and often in the face of all the weight of the world seemingly coming against them. Yet they may still not seek God in prayer, so that they are still unable to face the weight of the world coming down around them with the strength that God is ready and willing to give if they simply come to him in prayer. These believers  may then be those who fail others in the time of trial, when they themselves cannot really get what is going on with the situation that is overwhelming them and overwhelming others. So they have become lost in the overwhelming experience and  do not get to the place where they can find the way out, even if they are trying with all their own might to be tough and self-reliant in the face of all this world brings against them. And once again the London preacher Charles Spurgeon has a pungent word to speak to this situation: “Temptation lets us known how weak we are, and drives us to our knees. It tests our faith and tries our love, and lets us see whether our graces are genuine or not.”

Being overwhelmed, then,  is not a mark of something wrong with us, but of the world that we live in. Nowadays many of us may experience too much of the wrong kind of being overwhelmed from the times that we may be of trying to play God ourselves and in the lives of others in this world. The lesson of Gethsemane, of the horror of the sin of the world, is too little realized among us nowadays. Our own lack of a clear understanding of the horror of the sin of this world leaves us too often too ready to take the side of the sinner against the holy, perfect God who says that sin must be atoned for and points to the cross as the remedy. And too often our concerns center more in the wayward family member than the wayward world around us. And thus there remains too little regard for the seriousness of sin, too little appreciation for the love of God who gave his Son, and too little awe at the utter submission of the Son of God to the will of the God the Father.

Being overwhelmed is the place where we may find ourselves in this world. But it does not have to be a long term or permanent state of our lives. It can be the place which leads to the beginning of a victory that glorifies God to all eternity. Through persistence in prayer the overwhelming situation concludes in victory. For Jesus, the night in Gethsemane ended in victory. The battle which he began there as a part of his war against the forces of darkness continued to its ultimate culmination. He was victorious then and there in Gethsemane so that he could continue in victory to the end on the cross.  The conflict within gave way to his standing up to the beginning of his suffering with the betrayal. So being overwhelmed gave way to standing up and standing firm in the face of what would happen to him over the rest of the night and the next day to the final victory on the cross.

The crushing weight which overwhelmed Jesus became bearable to the point of facing the road to the cross. This was the starting point of the final series of events for which he came began with the acceptance of the cup from God the Father and the victory for which he came.

Here is what verses 41-42 say: “And again coming back he found them sleeping, since their eyes couldn’t stay open and they did not know how to answer him. And he comes back the third time, and and he tells them, ‘Are you going to sleep the rest of the time and then have enough rest? It’s over! Look! The Son of Man has been betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up! Let’s go! Look! The one who has sold me out has just arrived!’”  These were the last words of Jesus before the betrayal and arrest. That was then not something that he faced unwillingly but with the full submission of his will. He knew that the time had come, and he went forth to meet the betrayer, the betrayal and the arrest by an armed mob of hired political flunkeys.

There is some dispute over the meaning of v. 41: “‘Are you going to sleep the rest of the time and then have enough rest?” This was most likely an ironic question that was probably put quite gently to the disciples. After this question he announces the next event in the series of events that would happened over the rest of the night and the next day: his betrayal into the hands of sinners. The words of Jesus recall his own predictions of his death and resurrection which he gave to the disciples earlier during his ministry, which are recorded in Mark 8:31, 9:31,10:33-32.  He was now fully willing to get up  and to  enter into the events that would happen. He had now entered into the full acceptance of the cup of the judgment of God upon himself for the sin of the world and all that would mean to him. The time of prayer has made the change in him now to face his mission clearly, as he rises up from this time of prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. He rises from the place of prayer to the path of submission and obedience to the will of the Father to the uttermost. And, just as well, the failure of the apostles then may have been a later victory themselves once the lesson of Gethsemane came through to them years later when they faced their own suffering and martyrdoms.

Being overwhelmed, then, does not have to end that way. That experience does not have to be the permanent experience of the believer. Though we are living in a world which may often beat us down and always, seeks to beat us down does not mean that that being overwhelmed has to be the last word on us and our experience. The path to victory after being overwhelmed comes in getting up and going forward after spending as much time on the knees before God as it takes. So most certainly today there is far too little realization that the victory is won first in the place of prayer. There is the place where we come into the embrace of the will of God there and receive his power, then to the path of submission and obedience.

THE NIGHT OF DISTRESS AND SORROW IN THE GARDEN LED TO THE PATH TO THE CROSS, AND THEN THE CROSS BECAME THE VICTORY FOR ALL WHO HAVE COME TO JESUS IN FAITH FOR THEIR ETERNAL SALVATION. THE CUP OF THE WRATH OF GOD ON THE CROSS FOR US MEANT THE REMOVAL OF THE PENALTY AND PUNISHMENT OF SIN FOR EACH ONE OF US SO THE VICTORY IN THE GARDEN WAS THE PREPARATION FOR THE VICTORY OF THE CROSS AND THE EMPTY TOMB, AND THE VICTORY WAS NOT FOR HIM PERSONALLY, BUT THE VICTORY OF SALVATION FOR HIS PEOPLE, THE VICTORY TO THE GLORY OF GOD TO ALL ETERNITY, FOR ALL THE UNIVERSE. HE HAS ALREADY TAKEN CARE OF THE MOST OVERWHELMING SITUATION FOR US ON THE CROSS – THE SIN OF A LOST AND DYING WORLD. AND HIS VICTORY IS THE REASON WHY THE SITUATIONS WHICH OVERWHELM US NOW DO NOT HAVE TO KEEP US DOWN, BUT CAN LIKEWISE BECOME VICTORIES WHICH GLORIFY GOD TO ALL ETERNITY.

The gospel of salvation is therefore the invitation to participate in the victory of Jesus Christ. The whole point of his death and resurrection to provide the salvation which is received by repentance and faith in him alone. The whole reason why he suffered and died is so that you might come to the place where you  receive his death as the price for your salvation, for the forgiveness of your sins. This calls for the conscious decision from you, for the conscious reception by faith, the saving faith which is the basis of entering and standing in the salvation which Jesus has brought, since without him our sin is overwhelming to us from now to all eternity.

Dark hours and overwhelming situations still come upon us in this world. Some will come unexpectedly, and some will come simply by taking the next step in following the will of God in this world. But his victory makes possible our victories in our darkest and most overwhelming hours. He has shown us the place to find the victory if we find ourselves in our darkest nights, so for us the place to be in the hardest times and in the times of greatest temptation is in the place of prayer. There we can find his power to help us and his presence to guide and strengthen us. There is no need to be thrown into dependence on our own strength and wisdom, but in the place of our own Gethsemane we can receive his strength and wisdom for the next steps on the path of the will of God. And his victory also makes it certain that the earthly troubles will finally end and that finally there will be nothing but eternal, infinite love and joy in the presence of God. And often enough, the overwhelming situation may also have nothing to do with our own sin, but with the sins and follies of others around us. So there remains among us to the end of the world the need to go into the place of persistent prayer, to a Gethsemane of intercession for this world, for not only for the wayward family members but for the people of the prodigal, wayward world around us.

Gathering

One of the distinctive emphases of the Christian and Missionary Alliance from the beginning was that of “Christ the Coming King.” It was fourfold gospel as presented by Albert Benjamin Simpson. He saw it as part of the truth of the gospel for all times and all places until Jesus returns. He wrote, “The Second Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is a distinct and important part of the apostolic gospel. The truth and hope of the Lord’s return is the church’s great and blessed hope.”

The literal, physical and visible return of Jesus Christ to this world has been a part of the hope of believers in Christ for over two thousand years now. It is something that is to be expected and longed for, as we grow in Christ. Yet I fear that the reality and impetus of this hope has waned in the church over the past generation in the lives of many. So there is still a need for renewed preaching and teaching on the return of Jesus to the church today, lest our hearts grow lukewarm and comfortable here and our hopes are turned to things that are second best rather than the best that is yet to come. And I give what follows from an unabashedly premillennial and posttribulational perspective, as a part of ethical disclosure of what is to come. If you come from a different perspective, please read this with a willingness to understand the perspective I put forth.

Jesus himself gave strong and clear predictions as to what would happen before his coming in glory. What he has said has been written down, passed down and preserved for us today, so that we would not become distracted and deceived as to the true hope for our broken and fallen world. In the week that preceded his death on the cross and resurrection he spoke to Peter, James and John of his return in glory to this world. This teaching session happened on the slope of the Mount of Olives facing Jerusalem and the Temple, probably around March or April of A.D. 30. Three men heard these words, and the account of Mark is probably mostly that of the apostle Peter, who was there to hear these things. So here is what he had to say:

“But when you see ‘The Abomination of Desolation’ standing where it ought not to be! Let the reader understand – then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the roof of the house not come down nor go back into the house to take anything from the house. Let no one who has gone into the field turn around and go back to grab a coat. Alas for those who are pregnant and nursing in those days! Pray that it will not be in the time of winter, because those will be days of catastrophe such as have not happened from the beginning of creation when God created until now and will not be again. And except the Lord had cut short those days, nothing living would have survived. But on account of the chosen people he has chosen he will cut short those days. And if anyone then says to you, ‘Look the Messiah is here!’, do not believe that person, because false Messiahs and false prophets will arise and give out signs and wonders so that, if it were possible, to deceive God’s very own people. But you watch! I have already told you everything.”

“But in those days after that catastrophe,

‘The sun will be darkened,
And the moon will not give out its light,
And the stars will be falling from the sky,
And the powers in heaven will be shaken.’

And then they will see the Son of Man as he comes in the clouds with much power and glory. And then he will send out his angels, and he will gather together his chosen people from the four winds, from the farthest point of the land to the farthest point of the sky.” (Mark 13:14-27, Dale’s sight translation.)

Before the return of Jesus Christ there will be unparalleled religious deception in the person of the Antichrist. Make no mistake, he is a real person who is yet to be definitely and openly revealed to this world. His appearance will then foment the great persecution of believers that will come before the end. This will be the time of the the Antichrist who is to come. This will be the worldwide worship of a single wicked man, and it will be imposed worldwide by deception and by military power. There will then be a particular blatant attempt to set up this worship of the Antichrist in Jerusalem itself.

Jesus starts out this part of the prophecy with a statement that would be strange if it stood alone: ““But when you see ‘The Abomination of Desolation’ standing where it ought not to be! Let the reader understand . . .” ‘The Abomination of Desolation’ is an allusion to the previous prophecy of Daniel 9:27. It is considered to have been fulfilled by many in 168 BCE when the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes caused the regular Jewish sacrifice to cease in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and set up pagan worship there. But Jesus brought this up again many years afterward, and he evidently didn’t believe that it was completely fulfilled at that time. Rather, he points to a fulfillment that was yet to come in the future. And the early church definitely believed that there was a fulfillment in the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, when the pagan standards,which in themselves were idols, were raised over the Holy City.

But there would be one that would be yet to come, a final appearance in the coming of the Antichrist. The ‘Abomination of Desolation’ seems to be the description of when an idol is raised on the Temple Mount in contradiction to the worship of the one true God in Jerusalem. It is something that is an utter and destructive abomination and affront to the one true God. So Jesus is predicting that this would happen yet again in the future before his return. And the parallel passage in II Thessalonians 2:3 seems to point to this as well. This is where the apostle Paul wrote, “[the day of the Lord] will not come unless the falling away comes first and the Man of Lawlessness is revealed, the son of perdition, who will stand against and lift himself up over everything that is called God or something to be worshipped, so that he sits himself down in the Temple of God and sets himself up to be God.” In fact, much of II Thessalonians 2:1-12 can be considered to be parallel to Mark 13:14-23. It’s not unreasonable to see the apostle Paul in II Thessalonians 2:1-12 expanding on and applying these very statements of Jesus from the Olivet Discourse, and indeed, providing us with an apostolic commentary on this part of the Olivet Discourse.

Jesus
Mark 13:14-23
Paul
I Thessalonians 2:1-12
Abomination of desolation – 13:14 Antichrist setting himself up in Temple – 2:3
False, deceiving miracles / signs and wonders from the antichrists and false prophets to come
13:22
False, deceiving miracles / signs and wonders from the Antichrist to come
2:9-12

So then, it’s possible also to see, as many do, that the Antichrist will be the ultimate example of many antichrists who have come throughout history. I’ve heard others say that it seems like there have been candidates for the post throughout history, and that Satan seems to have had someone eligible for the post throughout history. It’s reasonable to think so, when you consider

  • Adolf Hitler: He proclaimed himself the emissary of the Almighty and the Founder of the Reich. Nazi soldiers died invoking his name.
  • Joseph Stalin: His propaganda was that he was the wisest, most beloved and genial man of the world, and that he was the only one who was caring for the poor and protecting the oppressed.
  • Mao Tse Tung: He proclaimed himself the ultimate power and accepted worship as people bowed before him, and there was a widespread belief that he healed.

And so on. It’s reasonable from scripture to see that the last great counterfeit of Satan, his great masterpiece of cunning, will use demonic power to deceive people into believing his self deification. And at any time the question must come to believers to consider whether the stage is being set for the appearance of the Antichrist. But then Jesus goes on to give more explicit instructions on what to do when this happens. The appearance of the Antichrist will then mean the beginning of a worldwide wave of persecution, beginning at Jerusalem. This will be the start of the period of worldwide catastrophes, otherwise known as the Great Tribulation. So these are the directions that Jesus gave: “ . . . then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let the one who is on the roof of the house not come down nor go back into the house to take anything from the house. Let no one who has gone into the field turn around and go back to grab a coat. Alas for those who are pregnant and nursing in those days! Pray that it will not be in the time of winter, because those will be days of catastrophe such as have not happened from the beginning of creation when God created until now and will not be again. And except the Lord had cut short those days, nothing living would have survived. But on account of the chosen people he has chosen he will cut short those days.”

The sign to flee will simply be the appearance of the Antichrist in Jerusalem as he sets himself up as God. It looks like it will be on a restored Temple, but it may well be that in the place of the Holy of Holies on the Temple Mount, without necessarily being a physical Temple there may be sufficient to trigger fulfillment of the prophecies. But this prophecy was taken by the Christians in Jerusalem in AD 70 as the sign to flee to the town of Pella, but that doesn’t seem to be the complete fulfillment of the prophecy. The flight from Jerusalem come in a situation where no hesitancy is possible. The prayer for that not to happen on a Sabbath is a real recognition of the restriction of services to travellers in that time, such as the current lack of activity in modern Israel on the Sabbath.  And the horrors of that time will make the blessings of motherhood seem like a liability. These statements of Jesus show that the tremendous difficulty, brutality and horror of what was to come. The escape from persecution was not an end in itself, though, but rather itself a determination not to be caught in a compromising position.

The promise of Jesus is that God will cut short those days of persecution and the series of catastrophes to come. The Ruler of history will intervene to end history at its lowest depth of human depravity under Satanic direction. The period will be allowed to show what happens when God allows people to choose freely, and the refusal of mankind to receive his truth will erupt in depravity, deceit and violence without parallel. But God will not allow this time of evil to continue forever.  It will happen only for a short time and then the end will be final. Though from our perspective these words may not be comforting, for the people suffering in that time there will be great comfort in the knowledge that God is cutting it short.

Jesus went on, though, to tack on strong commands not to believe the false Messiahs and prophets to come. It’s noteworthy that he changed to the plural here instead of zeroing in on the singular Antichrist and false prophet that are in the book of Revelation: “And if anyone then says to you, ‘Look the Messiah is here!’, do not believe that person, because false Messiahs and false prophets will arise and give out signs and wonders so that, if it were possible, to deceive God’s very own people. But you watch! I have already told you everything.”

So why did Jesus speak in the plural of false Messiahs and false prophets rather than in the singular, like in the book of Revelation, where there is one Beast (the Antichrist) and False Prophet? I think that it comes down to simply this: his warning not to believe a person who points out that the Messiah is a particular person and in a particular place until his visible return before the whole world applies to all false Messiahs and false prophets until his visible return before the whole world. And his warning not to believe them no matter what apparent miracles they might do applies to all false Messiahs and false prophets until his visible return. This would be consistent with the apostolic guidance here, from the apostle John himself – one of the eyewitnesses to what Jesus was saying here, and the author of I John and the book of Revelation. “Children, it is the last hour, and just as you have heart that the Antichrist is coming, and now many antichrists have come to pass. From that we know that it is the last hour . . .” (I John 2:18). “Every spirit which does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God; and this is the spirit of the Antichrist, who you have heard is coming, and now is already in the world.” I John 4:3

So at that time, when everything seems to be going toward the worst, the very best will happen. Jesus Christ himself will return gather together his people for himself. It’s understated here that this will cut short the apparent triumph of the false Messiah, but the emphasis is that the time of evil will end for the people of God. He will come to end the rule of evil and set up his kingdom over all the earth. They will be gathered together to be with him forever, and I understand this to be what is normally termed the post-tribulation rapture, though my preferred term is the Final Gathering, or the Gathering.

There will be unprecedented signs in the heavens before the Gathering takes place. The ignorance of the cosmic signs in the common preaching and teaching of the end times that are throughout scripture and which Jesus himself mentioned is amazing to me. But this thread of prophecy continues from the Old Testament prophets clear through to the end of the New Testament, and, with the emphasis that Jesus himself gave it, it deserves renewed scrutiny. I think that the reason it has been underemphasized in the past was the desire, with the emphasis on the pre-tribulation rapture, to define the word imminent in regard to the coming as ‘with no preceding signs.’ But, with the following verses, I think that imminent needs to be defined as ‘impending’ and as the next major event in God’s plan of salvation for his people.

So here is what Jesus had to say in that passage about the coming signs in the heavens:

“But in those days after that catastrophe,

‘The sun will be darkened,
And the moon will not give out its light,
And the stars will be falling from the sky,
And the powers in heaven will be shaken.’”

There can be no question that Jesus is not making a scientific cosmological statement here, but taking up the Old Testament language from the book of Joel and elsewhere to describe what will happen at the close of the time of the final catastrophes, or, what we may call the Great Tribulation. Here are the places in the Old Testament where the signs are predicted: Isaiah 13:10, Ezekiel 32:7-8, and Joel 3:15. All are signs of the wrath of God, and they are also repeated in the sixth seal of Revelation 6:12-17. The language that scripture uses here and elsewhere is simply describing, in metaphorical fashion, how these events will appear to someone who is standing on earth. It’s hard to tell exactly what the signs will be in scientific terms, since Jesus is not here giving a scientific explanation. The implication is that these phenomena will be divinely caused, and that they will be objective, visible phenomena that an earthly observer will be able to recognize them from their description. These signs, in addition to what Jesus has already described, will be visible signs that the end is near. 

After the coming signs, Jesus will return visibly to the earth as the Lord of glory. The entire earth will see him in his unveiled majesty and glory, and there will be no mistaking that it is him returning just as he said. This is his simple statement: “And then they will see the Son of Man as he comes in the clouds with much power and glory.”

This will be the same return that was just as the angels predicted at his ascension into heaven:   This will be the same Jesus of Nazareth, who walked our earth, lived with us and taught in our towns and cities. This will be the same person who was crucified, resurrected and seen by the apostles for forty days after his resurrection. He will not then be coming in the humble circumstances as he did, but with the kingly, eternal glory that he received at this exaltation. It will be impossible for anyone on the earth not to recognize who it really is, and he will be visible to everyone on the earth as he is returning. Here is the fuller description of his visible appearance from the gospel of Matthew, from his parallel account of the Olivet discourse:

“And then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and all the tribes of the earth will wail, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory” (Matthew 24:30).

At his visible return Jesus Christ will receive his people left on earth to himself. There will definitely be a rapture at his visible, worldwide return! And we have the word of Jesus himself about it:

“And then he will send out his angels, and he will gather together his chosen people from the four winds, from the farthest point of the land to the farthest point of the sky.”

Personally, I’m not fond of the term ‘rapture’ for this part of the return of Jesus. The term describes the action of being caught up, but the term that I prefer for his aspect of his return is ‘The Gathering.’ And I think if we consider the scriptures on his coming, there are a number of other scriptures that place the gathering of his people together here, at his visible appearance. And it’s noteworthy that Jesus’s emphasis here on the gathering of his people to himself, not on judgment. In several other passages the two aspects of gathering of Christ’s people together to him and judgment of the unbelieving world in opposition to the return of Jesus are joined together. It’s noteworthy that the metaphor of harvest and threshing is applied to the Gathering and pressing wine is applied to the judgment of the wicked opposing the return of Jesus in these passages elsewhere in scripture.

The first passage where I think that you can find the prophetic thread about the Gathering is an Old Testament passage, in the book of Isaiah. I’ve never seen this passage cited in any previous discussion of the rapture, though I’ve seen it mentioned in the side references to the New Testament passages that mention the rapture. I was definitely surprised one day years ago when I was working my way through the book of Isaiah in the Hebrew and then the Greek from Alfred Rahlfs’s version of the Septuagint (the common Greek Old Testament in the first century AD). Here’s what Isaiah 27:12-13 had to say (Dale’s sight translation):

“In that day the LORD will thresh from the torrents of the Euphrates to the Wadi of Egypt,
And you will be gathered up one by one, sons of Israel!
And on that day a great trumpet will be sounded,
And those who were as good as dead will come from the land of Assyria and the outcasts from the land of Egypt,
And they will worship the LORD on the holy mountain, in Jerusalem!”

Here, in this passage, we find the common elements of the Gathering that are later mentioned throughout the New Testament. These may be omitted or underemphasized due to what emphasis the speaker or author had at the time, but they are common themes:

  • Judgment of the wicked depicted as pressing wine in a winepress 
  • The sounding of a great trumpet
  • Gathering of the people of God to Jerusalem out of great distress and affliction depicted as a harvest

I don’t think that it’s too much at all to see this passage as the passage where Jesus was taking up, explaining and expanding the Old Testament promises to his people for all ages. It’s also noteworthy that the word used for ‘gather’ here in the Septuagint is the same verb as Jesus used in the passage in Matthew and Mark and in the noun form in I Thessalonians 2:1, where the apostle Paul discusses “ . . .  the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our gathering together to him . . .” The word itself is not either terribly common or uncommon but I think that it is significant that it carries through in these passages.

Then there is the similarity of the I Thessalonians 4 passage, which is often cited as the authority for a pre-tribulation rapture, but is notably similar to the passages in the Olivet discourse where Jesus describes his appearance before the world. There are some common elements, especially between the Matthew 24 and Mark 13 descriptions of the visible appearance of the Lord from heaven.

“We don’t want you to be unaware, brothers, concerning those who have fallen asleep, that you would be pained as those who have no hope. Because if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, so also God will bring those who have fallen asleep in Jesus with him.”

“For I have this to say to you – based on an utterance of the Lord – that we who are alive who are left until the coming of the Lord will not get ahead of those who have fallen asleep, because the Lord himself, in a cloud, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet of God, will come down from heaven. And the dead in Christ will rise first, then those of us who are alive and left around will be caught up with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort each other with these words!” I Thessalonians 4:13-18

So Paul emphasis on gathering and on resurrection is more detailed about those who have died in Christ being resurrected as the same time as living believers are caught up and gathered together from the earth. Here are the similarities in the three passages. These s

Jesus
speaking personally as the Lord
Paul
basing his explanation on a direct utterance of the Lord
Lord coming in clouds Lord coming in a cloud
People who are alive are caught up by angels to be with the Lord People who are alive are caught up to be with the Lord (agency not explained)
Emphasis on rescue of living believers Emphasis on resurrection of living believers with believers who have died
Great trumpet (Matthew 24:31) Great trumpet

There have been a number of attempts to find a pre-tribulation rapture in the book of Revelation, but, in light of the previous passages, it’s easy enough to find the post-tribulation rapture:

“And I looked, and see there, a white clouds, and sitting on the cloud someone who was like a Son of Man, who had a golden crown on his head and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the Temple and cried out in a loud voice, ‘Put forth your sickle and reap, because the hour has come to reap, since the harvest of the earth is ripe.’ And the one who was sitting on the cloud put forth his sickle on the earth, and the earth was harvested.” (Revelation 14:14-17).

Then, immediately following that, there comes the emphasis on judgment that is also a part of the return of Jesus:

“And another angel came out of the Temple which is in heaven who also carried a sharp sickle. And another angel came from the altar who had charge of the fire, and he cried out with a great voice to the angle with the sharp sickle, ‘Put forth your sharp sickle, and gather the grapes from the vine of the earth, because the bunches of grapes have come to fruition. And the angel put forth his sickle on the earth, and he gathered up from the vine of the earth and he threw them into the winepress of the wrath of God. And the winepress was stomped down outside the city, and the blood of the winepress flowed up to the horses’ bridles for about 300 kilometers!” (Revelation 14:17-20).

And it’s not too much at all to see this as then pointing to the climax of the book of Revelation, to the description of the Lord’s visible coming with his people and the judgment upon the world which opposes him:

“And I saw heaven opened, and see there! A white horse! and the person who was sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and he judges and makes war with righteousness. And his eyes are like a flame of fire, and many crowns are upon his head.  He has a name written down which no one but he himself knows,, and he is dressed with a tunic dipped in blood, and his name is called, ‘The Word of God.’ And his armies in heaven follow him on white horses and are clothed in clean white linen. And a sharp sword comes from his mouth, so that he strikes down the nations, and he shepherds them with a rod of iron.  And he stomps down the winepress of the wine of the wrath of the almighty God. And he has on his tunic and on thigh a name written: ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’” Revelation 19:11-16 emphasis on judgment

Just by way of passing – there are some scriptures, such as Revelation 3:10, outside the normal passages which cited as evidence for the pre-tribulation rapture. The thing is that they do not demand the interpretation that they apply to a pre-tribulation rapture. Rather, it’s a circular form of exegesis to apply them to a pre-tribulation rapture, since it’s necessary to assume a pre-tribulation rapture to see them as applying to a pre-tribulation rapture.

So then, the goal of our hope in Christ is coming closer every and every day. The Lord’s return is nearer now than it was a moment ago, a day ago or a year ago. The real future of the believer in Christ is there with him. With the return of the Lord Jesus coming nearer and nearer, it is crucial for each one of us to settle the issues of salvation and Lordship. So if you have never made a heart commitment to Jesus Christ, now is the time to do so! And if you have, make sure that he remains as the Lord of your life until the end. Don’t waver from the hope that will bring such unspeakable and unimaginable joy and reward. And as that day comes closer, if you have made certain that Jesus is your Lord and Savior, live each day in love and holiness, in the image of Jesus himself. That will demonstrate to him and before all the world that you believe with all your heart that Jesus is returning!

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I was first persuaded that the post-tribulation rapture was the scriptural teaching by the exposition of J. Sidlow Baxter in his volume Explore the Book. Later I became aware of these more scholarly works:

George Eldon Ladd, The Blessed Hope: A Biblical Study of the Second Advent and the Rapture.

Robert H. Gundry, Church and the Tribulation: A Biblical Examination of Posttribulationism.

The Wikipedia article gives a reasonable summary: Post-tribulation rapture.

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One thing that many people may not be aware of: there is a great hymn on the return of Jesus which is thoroughly post-tribulation and co-authored by none other than Charles Wesley himself! Unfortunately, I think that the emphasis on the pre-tribulation rapture in the past century and a half has often deprived the church of this great hymn of the Second Coming of Jesus. The hymn “Lo! He comes with clouds descending,” is decidedly post-tribulation in its outlook. Charles Wesley himself reworked the lyrics to the present form. Here the Cambridge Singer perform Lo! he comes with clouds descending. And here are the lyrics and history.

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Amen, come, Lord Jesus!

A Preview of Coming Contractions

A. B. Simpson, the founder of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, once wrote, “The Second  Coming of the Lord Jesus Christ is a distinct and important part of the apostolic gospel. The truth and blessed hope of the Lord’s return is the church’s great and blessed hope.”

During the 1970s through the early 1980s there was widespread discussion of the events that would lead to the return of the Lord Jesus, but it seemed to have waned since then. Much of the discussion of the end times then seem to try too hard to identify contemporary events with scriptural statements, and the speculation tended to try too hard to set a specific date or year. Yet the point of scripture is not to try to work out the time too precisely and exactly, but rather to live according to the promise of his return. Despite what tendencies to date setting and controversy over differences of understanding of the end time, the believer in Jesus Christ can continue with unshaken faith in the word of the Lord who promised his return. There is no reason to be distracted or dismayed by the circumstances which lead up to that time, to be concerned how others are thinking about it, but to continue in complete and utter confidence that he is returning. The point is that we are not to try to find our exact spot on the timeline of the last days, but rather to live each day as if we anticipated Jesus’s return that very day.

The Lord Jesus himself provided a long explanation of what would happen in the days that would lead up to his return from heaven to take up his dominion over the whole world. It is in the passage known as the Olivet discourse, the passage which is the bridge between the prophecies of the Old Testament that apply to the second coming and the prophetic passages in the New Testament epistles and the Revelation of Jesus Christ to John, the culmination of Biblical prophecy. In this teaching session shortly before the grand events of his crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, the culmination of his first coming, he gave the preview of what would happen in his second coming in glory. He gathered together strands of Old Testament prophecy and brought them together, to explain what would happen with events in history that would happened up to and after the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, and even more to the final intensification and domination of evil before the actual visible appearance of the Lord Jesus in glory before the entire world in his return.

Going back to what Jesus was actually saying will take us beyond ‘chart based’ eschatalogical teaching of a previous age, where there were too many attempts to plot out our moment in time on a map of history made from some rather iffy interpretations of some scriptures. We rather need to look to what all the scriptures say on the subject, not to try to pinpoint our place on a timeline on a chart. Rather, no matter in which age we life, no matter where we find ourselves on the timeline before his return, we can find in his teaching that Jesus left not so much as a set of special instructions for those who were to remain here until the last minute, but rather an abiding attitude of expectation for believers in all ages and in all places of looking forward to his return. And with that all those who truly believe in him and look forward to his return can agree that his expectation for us was not having right opinions about the order of events and the timeline, but rather a continuous faithfulness. The clear expectation of the Lord Jesus as for the believer who may live in the last few years, months and days before his return would be as faithful as any believer as in the years before, and that any believer who would die without seeing his return during his or her lifetime would remain as faithful during his or her life regardless of whether he or she lived until that moment. So with the realization of that expectation, let us turn to the first part of the Olivet discourse in Mark 13:3-13.

“And while he was seated on the Mount of Olives facing the Temple, Peter, James, John and Andrew privately privately asked him, ‘Tell us when these things will happen, and what the sign will be when all these things are about to come to their conclusion.’ And Jesus began to tell them, ‘See to it that no one leads you into error. Many will come in my name and say that, ‘I am the one!’, and they will deceive many. When you hear about wars and the rumors of wars, do not be disturbed. These things are destined to come about, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom upon kingdom, and there will be earthquakes in many places, and there will be famines. These things are the beginning of the excruciating labor contractions. But watch out for yourselves. They will deliver you to councils and synagogues; you will be physically assaulted and you will stand before governors and kings for a witness to them – and it is destined that the gospel will be proclaimed to all the nations first. And when they drag you out and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand what you will say, but in that very hour it will be given to you as to what to say, because it will not be you speaking but the Holy Spirit. And brother will betray brother to execution, and a father his child, and children will rise up against their parents and have them executed. And you will be hated by everyone because of my name. But whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.”

So Jesus started out to speak about what would happen, and his first caution is this: The believer in Jesus Christ must take guard not to be led into error away from the truth of Jesus Christ. The sane appraisal of  truth according to the scriptures will be the only guide through the confusion and deception that will come up0n the entire earth. But again, this is simply the same kind of steadfastness and discernment that Jesus has always expected of all believers everywhere and in every time.

The first warning Jesus gave was against false Messiahs who would arise. He warned his followers first of all neither to believe nor to follow them. They are counterfeits of the true Lord, and with this saying he lets his people know that there will be a series of pretenders who would come in the months and years to come. His warning was not to scare or intimidate but to give his people the information that they needed to avoid being taken in by the counterfeits.

Note the strong warning that Jesus gave first in verse 5: “See to it that no one leads you into error. Many will come in my name and say that, ‘I am the one!’, and they will deceive many.”  This was a warning that began to come true in the years after he first gave it. In Jerusalem before its destruction by the Romans in A.D. 70, there were two deceivers mentioned in the book of Acts, Judas of Galilee and the Egyptian for whom the Roman centurion mistook the apostle Paul. Josephus, the historian who chronicled the fall of Jerusalem, reported the other false Messiahs that popped up as the Roman legions under Vespasian and Titus ravaged Palestine and burned and sacked Jerusalem itself. The apostle John could then write a few years later, “ . . . just as you have heard that the Antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have popped up . . .” (I John 4:18). And throughout the years since there have been many, many false prophets and false Messiahs who have arisen, so the warning of Jesus has been relevant for every age in which his people have lived.

The thing that we need to remain aware of, then, if we are the followers of Jesus Christ today, is that such deceivers still pop up all over the place, in many times and places. There are so many names of leaders of cults who could be put here, but the truth is that there will still be false Messiahs and false prophets coming until the day comes when the ultimate false Messiah, the Antichrist, makes himself known. Over history, there have been many political false Messiahs, such as Adolf Hitler and Kim Jong Il. But there have been also many religious leaders who have been unmasked as false Messiahs such as David Koresh, Jim Jones and Father Divine, and where there are the trappings of the personality cult within a church we can find that some of them will come from within the ranks of the professing church itself. They may start out as leaders who seem to have a solid grasp of the gospel and compassion and insight to help many, even out of poverty and the gutter, but eventually they begin to abandon the truth of scripture and arrogate to themselves the personal power and authority over the lives of their followers and demand the worship of others even as they claim Messianic titles for themselves. All these pretenders, though, are only foreshadows of the ultimate false Messiah, the Antichrist, and we can see him pretty clearly to be the first horseman of the Apocalypse, the final lie and counterfeit for which the entire unbelieving world will fall.

So then, the first consideration for the believer in Jesus Christ is to take these sobering words of Jesus to heart. He has already warned us that there will be false Messiahs, and that we are not to follow them. And in a world where the discernment of truth and error among believers seems to be getting lower, when people may throw up their hands in frustration and say, “How can I tell what’s what in this situation? Who am I to judge?”, the expectation of Jesus is still that his followers will not allow false Messiahs to deceive them. The false Messiahs of our age may hold up false hopes, false visions, false and grandiose visions and delusions of changing the world and bringing about a utopia on this earth – and each false Messiah also shares his own false eschatology – the false view of the coming kingdom – what it will be and how it will come. But certainly the expectation of Jesus remains that his people will not allow these false Messiahs to deceive them. And for this he provides his own Word and the opportunity to remain steadfast with him: “So then, as you have received Christ Jesus as Lord, conduct your life in him, as you are rooted and built up in him and are made stable in the faith just as you were taught and as you overflow with thankfulness.” (Colossians 2:6-7, Dale’s sight translation).

But even after Jesus gave his warning against the the false Messiahs, he gave another warning. He warned us that the upheaval and turmoil of this world is not to alarm us unduly as it continues onward. This world will continue to experience catastrophes in various times and places, and indeed these may be expected to accelerate as the end approaches. But the direction of Jesus is that what we see happening around us is not to give us undue alarm. Here is what he said again: “When you hear about wars and the rumors of wars, do not be disturbed. These things are destined to come about, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation and kingdom upon kingdom, and there will be earthquakes in many places, and there will be famines. These things are the beginning of the excruciating labor contractions.”

So after Jesus gave the warning not to be deceived by false Messiahs, and then he gave the warning not to take the turmoil of national conflicts and strife and natural disasters in themselves to be an indication that the end has come at that moment. Certainly his words mean, with the use of the metaphor of a woman beginning to experience the first painful contractions of labor, that these events are moving forward to the end, but not that they are themselves the indication that that moment is the moment of the end. The labor contractions themselves foretell the birth, but they are not themselves the birth.

This warning was well suited for the generation of believers in Christ which lived in the years following his crucifixion and resurrection in Jerusalem and its surroundings. There was certainly an application to them, since they saw famines, earthquakes and political conflicts in the days before the destruction of the Holy City and the Second Temple. Yet the witness of history is that they continued steadfast to Christ and their witness to him despite what they were seeing around them, and that they continued to win others to Christ in those times where it appeared that the end might happen at any minute if they looked just at the conflicts and disasters around them.

This warning also applies to our generation as well. There have been devastating earthquakes and famines in the days since I first came to Christ in 1974, as well as wars and revolutions around the globe. But even though we might wish that they were themselves the coming of the end when we were in their midst, we can know that Jesus does not want us to view them as an indication that the moment of the end has come. But certainly all these upheavals will give way to the final upheavals to take place after the appearance of the Antichrist – the other three horsemen of the Apocalypse, of war, famine and death. The indication is rather that there will the a clear intensification and acceleration of these upheavals which will follow the appearance of the Antichrist. And I think that this is very clear that there is nothing that we can do to prevent war and disasters entirely until Jesus returns – so while there might be particular wars and disasters that could be prevented, we must recognize that the elimination of war and other disasters as a fantasy. And in the meantime, we are not to be misled by the troubles in this world, since they will occur, but these conflicts and catastrophes are not in themselves the irrefutable signs of the end. Rather, we need to hold off any identification of the end until the Antichrist is openly unveiled to the world – and I think that as we go on in this passage and throughout the scriptures, we will find that for the discerning believer the Antichrist will be hard to misidentify.

Therefore, from what Jesus has already said, the knowledge of the truth is our firm safeguard against being deceived and against being fearful as the times wind down toward the end. The truth of Jesus and his Word will guard us against false hopes and fear and despair as history comes to its culmination.

First of all, the knowledge of the truth requires a heart commitment to the truth of Christ in the Word of God above all, above all human tradition and the rumor and rush of the crowd. The attitude of wise and discerning faith comes from the trust in the Word of God, the written scriptures of the God of the Bible, and all other attitudes, ideas, teachings, opinion pieces and blog posts must be tested by that – and I do fear that many professed believers are too shallow or superficial in their own knowledge of the scriptures to have wisdom and discernment in this age.  Anything less will be shaky and unsure as the times become worse and the deceptions grow more seductive and severe. This heart commitment to the truth calls for us not to have a critical attitude toward our faith – that’s the wicked and arrogant advice that those who called themselves ‘Higher Critics’ (scare quotes intended) gave to undiscerning believers back in the nineteenth century. Rather, a person growing in his or her knowledge of the scriptures will find himself or herself looking at everything else in life with their mental and moral evaluative capabilities guided by the Word of God.

Just as much, the knowledge of the truth requires the constant prayer for the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, to lead us and keep on leading us into the truth of Christ. The humble prayer for the Spirit of truth to open the Word of God to us and show us the Christ of the scriptures will certainly be answered. And just as much, we need to seek for him to guide us away from the character flaws which keep us from receiving the truth of Christ. Like the ancient prayer, let us ask  —

“From cowardice, which shrinks from new truth,
From laziness, which is content with half truth,
From arrogance, that thinks it knows all truth —
O God of truth, deliver.”

And so, the knowledge of the truth will keep us from falsehood as we learn, follow and hold to the truth of Jesus. While the truth ignored leads to enslavement to falsehood, the knowledge of the true Jesus will keep us from caving to the falsehoods that may come.  As we learn the truth of God in the scriptures, it will enable us to recognize false teachers and Messiahs as they may come. And the truth of the scriptures will also keep us from being deceived by or attaching undue importance to the events of this world. Evil times will grow to their worst, to unparalleled depths, but they will only precede the arrival of the best of times, the unparalleled good that will arrive when Jesus Christ returns in glory to this earth.

So with all the warnings that Jesus has given of the turbulent times to come in this world, he has also given directions to his people as to what they are to do in the face of the difficulties and wickedness. In all situation the believer in Christ must stand firm for Christ. In all ages perseverance to the end is what he expects. In all ages he expects his people to remain firm and forthright in their confession of him as Lord and Savior before this world as it goes through its pangs of apparent death and contractions of coming life.

Even if the whole world goes in the direction of open and naked rejection of Jesus Christ, the believer in Christ must remain firm in commitment to Christ. Times of great unpopularity and outright persecution and martyrdom will come and go before the final, ultimate persecution and widespread martyrdom. The steadfast commitment to Christ in the midst of resistance to and suppression of the truth by a world which has been rejecting Jesus will mark the true, faithful disciple to Jesus, the one that Jesus chooses and accepts as part of his people for all eternity.

Jesus himself warned that there will be persecution throughout this world, but that the world will eventually be reached with the gospel. He said, “But watch out for yourselves. They will deliver you to councils and synagogues; you will be physically assaulted and you will stand before governors and kings for a witness to them – and it is destined that the gospel will be proclaimed to all the nations first.” We know upon his own word that the evangelization of this world will eventually be completed to God’s satisfaction. There will finally be no longer a time when anyone in the world can have the excuse of ignorance of the gospel.

So here by the word of Jesus himself we know that his church will finally succeed in the mission that he gave it. I’ve heard several rants by young pastors, where they’ve berated their helpless congregations sitting before them that ‘the church hasn’t reached the world,’ or changed and transformed the world. I’m not sure what convictions that they had about eschatology, though they were serving in a denomination that is supposed to be premillenial and believes in the literal coming of the Lord Jesus. But the word of Jesus here is not that one congregation, but that the entire church would eventually reach the world with the gospel. And his expectation is not that the world would be changed or transformed. Mark this carefully!! Jesus does not here give any assurance that his church will ever change or transform the world when the world has heard the gospel. Quite the opposite!

What will happen after the world has heard the gospel of Jesus is that the world will finally reject the truth of the gospel. The world will not be transformed or changed finally, but the world will reject the gospel finally. And then the world will give in to the final deception of the Antichrist. This will be the natural result of the rejection of the truth of the gospel – the world will foolishly come to the acceptance of the ultimate falsehood that Satan concocts for them. Jesus says more about this in this same discourse, but here is how the apostle Paul described what would happen at that time:  “The lawless one will come with the empowerment of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders and with the deceitfulness of iniquity for those who are perishing, because they did not receive the love of the truth so that they would be saved. And because of this God sends them the working of error so that they would believe the live, so that all would be judged who did not believe in the truth but when it came to iniquity – they were perfectly fine with that!” (II Thessalonians 2:9-12).

In all times, though, God will use the times of rejection to continue the witness to the truth of his gospel, in the face of the worst opposition possible, both legal and illegal under the law of man. In those times witness will become the greater priority than survival – but in the times of crisis the people of God will not be left alone, to their own strength and wisdom. In those times God will give his people the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit to them.

Jesus gave this promise and direction to his people as to how they were to approach the times of witness before the world during the times of persecution: “And when they drag you out and deliver you up, do not worry beforehand what you will say, but in that very hour it will be given to you as to what to say, because it will not be you speaking but the Holy Spirit.”

This promise can be seen as it worked itself out in the times in the book of Acts when authorities tried to clamp down on the apostles of God and the preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. For Peter and John, Stephen and Paul, the times that they were brought before the civil courts and officials and religious courts and judges became platforms for their witness to Jesus, and the people who had them on trial found themselves in the awkward position of being on trial themselves. They were enabled by the Holy Spirit to witness to the gospel with forthrightness, yet without hate and disrespect, and to show love and the utmost courtesy and graciousness as they themselves displayed the countenances of angels.

This promise of Jesus continued throughout the ages, from the days after the apostles, during the many persecutions and martyrdoms in the Roman empire and elsewhere, as the gospel went forth from Jerusalem. Persecutions and martyrdoms continue, as they had behind the Iron Curtain, in Islamic countries, in India under the ideology of Hindutva, and in Nepal and Bhutan under militant Buddhism, but unshaken witnesses still continue for Jesus when they are brought before the bar of human justice. And the scripture does indicate that the persecution will become worldwide during the last years before the return of Jesus. Make no mistake about it – holding a view that the rapture will happen before the tribulation will never be any kind of insurance for any believer in Christ against having to stand for Christ in the face of earthly persecution and possible martyrdom. It has been said that many who held the view of the pre-tribulation rapture fell away in China after the Communist revolution because they believed that they would never have to suffer for Christ. Corrie ten Boom herself is reported to have said that she held the view of the pre-tribulation rapture before her imprisonment and the martyrdom of her sister and father under Nazi rule, but she came out warning against taking that view as any kind of personal comfort or insurance against suffering and dying for Christ, and indeed, she became a convinced believer in the rapture taking place at the end of the tribulation. Now certainly the issue of when the rapture takes place must always come down to what the scriptures say in themselves about the issue. So the warning here is against using this view as any kind of expectation that the future will not hold possible suffering and death if I follow Jesus with all my heart, and that a particular view of the rapture is not to be held because a person does not want to stand for Jesus and be faithful until death.

It’s noteworthy, then, that in the next several verses Jesus hits at three specific things about which I believe that many believers today have very little clarity.These things are what believers need to have clarity so that they can stand for Christ in the midst of this world, both in the present and as the coming contractions continue and deepen until the Lord returns.

The first thing that Jesus hits at is the need for a proper perspective on family loyalty in the time of persecution. He specifically predicts that betrayal to the pagan, God rejecting and Antichrist exalting state will come from family members and will result in the execution of innocent believing family members. Make no mistake about what he said: “ And brother will betray brother to execution, and a father his child, and children will rise up against their parents and have them executed.” While there has been a real concern for the salvation of and harmony among marriages and families

for the past generation, I’ve stated that there has been a real tendency among many professing believers and Christian leader to the idolatry of family and often to the idolatry of their own family. And betrayal will come from family members whom they may have pampered and idolized and for whom they may have made a number of little compromises of love and obedience to Christ.

So let’s consider what Jesus  says in Matthew 10: 37:  “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and the one who loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” (See also a parallel passage in Luke 14:25-27). So when I witness the little compromises that Christian parents and leaders make for their children – how they tell a lie here to make that child look better than he or she is, or how they poison the well for a supposed rival to their children, or they ignore the blatant and growing selfishness and character flaws of their children – it makes me wonder how will they stand in the end if they have become habituated to putting their family above Christ and scripture by little and hidden compromises.

The second thing that Jesus says deals with our reception by the world as a whole, and it deals with the worldwide hatred that there will be toward believers before Jesus returns. Jesus gives the exact motive of the hatred of the world toward believers here, and make no mistake about why it will come upon believers: “And you will be hated by everyone because of my name.”  And this also touches upon another tendency in our day and age: the  idolatry of reputation among many professing believers. We tend far, far too much to think that there’s something wrong with us and what we may say if we displease the world without Christ. While this is sometimes the case with believers who are obnoxious or unnecessarily offensive with the way that they may express or live out their faith, I think that there are far fewer of these kinds of believers than there were in years past. I think that we have reacted far too much to the other extreme, to an oversensitivity to the slightest negative reaction to our faith from the world without Christ. Jesus has already made his expectation clear: “Whoever, then, acknowledges me before other people – I will acknowledge that person before my Father in heaven. And whoever denies me before other people – I will deny that person before my Father in heaven,” (Matthew 10:32-33).  So this makes me wonder – how will anyone stand before the world that hates those who trust in Christ if they put avoidance of any negative reaction by the world without Christ above the open confession of Christ in their daily lives.

The third thing which Jesus clarifies is the issue of perseverance in staying loyal to the Lord Jesus. He said, “But whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.” Again, make no mistake about what Jesus expected from those who were expecting the salvation that he came to bring. He expected perseverance to the end. This does not mean that he did not anticipate that there would be failures, cowardice and outright betrayals, such as Peter, but that there would be perseverance to the end despite these failings of human nature. And with this statement Jesus touches upon something else that has been an issue in this day: idolatry of going through the motions of a set prayer to receive salvation. I have written elsewhere that there is definitely the need to receive salvation by telling God about it in prayer. There can be no mistake about it from scripture, that the first person to tell about one’s repenting of one’s sins and putting one’s faith in Jesus Christ for salvation is God himself! And that will take the form of some kind of prayer, whether someone gives out the words to someone who is ignorant and stumbling or that person has come to know enough to let the words flow from his or her heart to God! But, the idea of ‘Once saved, always saved’ has become for too many the idea that you are eternally safe if you simply repeat the prayer, regardless of how you live your life afterwards or even whether you continue to have a testimony to continued faith in Jesus as your Lord and Savior. I believe that, on the one hand, many believers are not taking the time to deal with family members and friends who have simply repeated the prayer but living outside the transforming grace of God and faith in Christ as if that person was as assured of salvation as a believer who was abiding in Christ and bearing fruit for Christ all one’s life. And, on the other hand, the idea that it’s just repeating the prayer that receives salvation has become so repugnant to so many who have seen so many have false hopes for themselves and for others who may have repeated a prayer but afterwards show little to no understanding of the scriptural gospel and no desire to follow Christ and live in his transforming power.

But I think that this simple statement of Jesus turns the emphasis around for us, that the final profession of Christ, especially in the face of a hateful world that may reward that profession with capital punishment, matters as much as the first profession of faith in Christ. The same Jesus who said, “He who comes to me I will not by any means cast out” (John 6:37) also said, “ . . . whoever perseveres to the end will be saved.” He obviously meant them both and never intended either statement be pitted against each other. So here’s what I think it comes down to. Of course Jesus will receive every one who comes to him in repentance and faith. And he expects those who comes to him in repentance and faith to persevere to the end in that profession of repentance and faith. That one statement from Jesus about perseverance to the end matters more from than a stubborn grasping of ‘once saved, always saved’ applied to a repeated prayer rather than a lifelong perseverance in the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ. Just as much, we need to understand that perseverance to the end also means that Jesus expects falls along the way; after all, one of those he was speaking to was Peter. But I think that as we draw closer to the end that may be more of those who made shallow professions and cherished false hopes fall away from Jesus before a hateful world and those who have found the Savior continue with him to the end.

Whatever view of the tribulation a believer has, still a settled commitment to Christ and a consistent witness for Christ are binding upon all believers in all ages. The need will always be for a resilient life in Christ before the watching and often hostile world around us. If we are now in a time of relative ease, the time is now to continue with Christ, to be able to withstand the pressure of growing unpopularity and hatefulness from the world when it comes. And in whatever time or place we live in, there will be people and cultures which will be hostile and even murderous toward Christians. So the key is not to build and hide in our Christian enclaves and ghettoes and hope that the storms at the end pass us by, but to seek steadfastness in Christ now. Seek to be a solid witness now and not to remain lukewarm and silent. If Jesus is worth dying for before this world, he is worth living for now before this world!

So then, the warning of the prophecy of the Word of God, from the mouth of Jesus Christ himself, declares that there will be dark and difficult times up until the time that he returns. He is coming back! And that calls us to have our hope and joy in him now, and to become prepared now.

The first issue of preparation for the return of Jesus Christ is to have the issue of one’s own salvation in Jesus Christ settled completely. Be sure in your own heart that you have truly repented and believed in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and that you have been born again of his Spirit. Seal your commitment to him in public baptism, and follow him in a life of faith, love and obedience.

Then, be prepared by keeping the truth of the Word of God alive in your own heart. That’s the surest defense against the false Messiahs that are here now and the ones who are to come. Depth and stability in the truth of Jesus Christ and an unswerving devotion to the Lord Jesus now means that you will not be taken for a fool by the c0unterfeits that are here now and later to come.

Finally, be prepared to stand for Christ as things get worse and worse for believers by standing as a witness for Christ now. Show no shame of him now and he will show no shame for you when he returns. Let it be known who you will serve, now and forever.