I’ve been reading lately in Luke 21 and noticing some parallels to our own time. Jesus is teaching his disciples about the destruction of Jerusalem and says that there will be “in various places famines and pestilences”(Luke 21:11). There will be “distress of nations in perplexity”(Luke 21:25) and “people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world”(Luke 21:26). I am not saying that the coronavirus is the end of the world; I am saying that biblical thoughts remain relevant. Jesus gives his disciples some silver linings for dark times.
We can still bear witness. He warns that prior to Jerusalem’s destruction, Christians would be specifically targeted for persecution. “This will be your opportunity to bear witness”(Luke 21:13). Disciples have a different view of hardship. It is an opportunity. Dark times get people’s attention. If they persecute us, we can speak. If everyone is afraid, we can show confidence. If everyone is realizing their helplessness, we can show the power of prayer. If everyone is taking care of self, we can take care of others. Dark times are tragic and sad, but they are also opportunities.
There is a difference in death and perishing. Jesus clearly tells his disciples that “some of you they will put to death”(Luke 21:16). But in the next breath, he says, “But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives”(Luke 21:18-19). Jesus never guarantees that our physical lives will continue indefinitely. We may die. But when we die in a relationship with God, we “gain our lives.” The grim fact is that—if Jesus does not return first—we will die of something. Disciples remember this. Death is still tragic and awful, but far worse is dying without assurance of eternal life from him.
Dark times remind us of what matters. “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap”(Luke 21:34). Jesus doesn’t want his disciples to allow their lives to be so cluttered with the concerns of this life that they forget their spiritual lives. That is easier said than done! Sometimes it is sin (“dissipation and drunkenness”) that pulls at us; sometimes it is just busyness (“cares of this life”). In dark times, we pull back to see what is important—loving others, doing right, taking care of the essentials, and leaning on God. Don’t let dark times pass without doing some pruning of the things in your life that “weigh down the heart.”
I know that the parallel to our time is not exact. Yet Jesus teaches his disciples that dark times don’t change who we are and where we’re headed. Let’s live like it.
Sometimes Jesus just drops everything to help someone.
After he hears about John the Baptist’s death, “he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself…When he went ashore he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them and healed their sick”(Matt 14:13, 14). Jesus really wants to pray and regroup, but he drops everything to help people instead.
He goes without food to talk to the woman at the well (John 4:31-34). He interrupts his own journey to raise a widow’s son from the dead (Luke 7:13-14). My personal favorite is when he stops the parade through Jericho to heal blind Bartimaeus (who won’t shut up!). “And Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him’”(Mark 10:49). Over and over again, Jesus drops what he is doing—which is crucially important to the salvation of the world—to help people who are often complete strangers.
This challenges me. I have tasks that demand my attention—for my work, for my family, for my personal goals, and for proper care of my possessions. I have a limited amount of time. It is easy to overlook people who need my attention because I am absorbed in what I am doing. It is easy to resent impositions on my time. Yet when I ask myself what Jesus would do, it is a no-brainer. When my kids want my attention, when my Christian brothers reach out to me, and when total strangers have a need, I know that Jesus would drop everything for them.
To be clear, Jesus meets the need and still completes his obligations. He finds time to pray. He continues his journeys. But in that moment of decision, he refuses to be so committed to his work that he ignores glaring relational needs around him.
Jesus was busy too, but he found time for people. Drop everything for the people who need you.
Jesus tells a story about a tree:
“A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’”(Luke 13:6-9).
If it is a fig tree, it should produce figs. Where are the figs?
Isaiah pictures God’s nation as a vineyard from which he expects to receive fruit (Isa 5:1-8). Jesus borrows this image and makes it individual. God has placed each of us in a certain position—with certain gifts and talents and relationships—because he expects us to do things. He wants us to serve others. He wants us to bear the fruit of his Spirit in our lives, consistently growing more loving, patient, and self-controlled. He wants us to tell others about Jesus and his kingdom. After a certain amount of time (three years in the story), it is perfectly appropriate to ask: where are the figs?
God is patient with us. He understands that we need help and work. He knows our weaknesses. But there is a point at which laziness crosses the line into rebellion. At that point we are only “using up the ground.” This story is a warning that there is an urgency to actually obeying God.
What if I am like this tree? God has made great investments in me. Am I fulfilling his vision for me? Am I bearing the fruit he created me to produce? Where are the figs?
Let’s be a people who don’t merely talk about serving God and others, but who actually produce the fruit.
Jesus repeatedly tries to expand the viewpoint of his audience—to push them toward a broader mind.
The Sadducees, who reject the concept of resurrection, think they have a foolproof “what-if.” If a woman has been married to seven different men, whose wife will she be in the resurrection? Jesus responds: “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?”(Mark 12:24). When God states “I am the God of Abraham,” he is implying that Abraham is still living. Just because the Sadducees do not understand how resurrection works doesn’t mean it isn’t true. They need a broader view of God’s power.
When Jesus tells the disciples that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God,” they recoil. “Who then can be saved?” Jesus responds, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible”(Matt 19:24-26). The disciples believe that if the rich—whose wealth is seemingly an indicator of God’s favor—can’t be saved, no one can. They need a broader view of God’s grace.
Jesus tells his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith”(Matt 21:21-22). He wants them to pray bigger, more audacious prayers and trust that God is willing to back them up. This teaching is not full of qualifications and reservations. He wants them to have a broader view of God’s intervention in his world.
Jesus warns the Sadducees about putting God in a box. By trying to understand God and systematize their theology, they miss him. God is so much greater than our attempts to understand him.
Jesus warns the disciples about assuming they know whom God will save. By trying to understand how they can gain (and know they have) God’s favor, they exclude and include the wrong people. God is so much more gracious than we are.
Jesus warns the disciples about limiting God’s possible activities. By trying to know what is allowed and forbidden, they are tempted to fall back on “safe” requests. God is so much more active and powerful than we can imagine.
Faith involves being open to the limitless power—and infinitely good will—of an Almighty God.
Most people like to find a certain way of living and stick to it. We make our choices—politics, religion, friends, money, career—and rarely reexamine them. We would prefer to just live happily ever after.
But Jesus wants us to be willing to change.
“‘A man had two sons. And he went to the first and said, “Son, go and work in the vineyard today.” And he answered, “I will not,” but afterward he changed his mind and went. And he went to the other son and said the same. And he answered, “I go, sir,” but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?’ They said, ‘The first.’ Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, I say to you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes go into the kingdom of God before you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him. And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him’”(Matt 21:28-32).
Jesus praises the tax collectors and prostitutes who changed in response to John’s preaching. He criticizes the chief priests and elders because they refused to hear John. “And even when you saw it, you did not afterward change your minds and believe him.” Jesus targets an unwillingness to change, even when we know we need to.
The stories of significance in the gospels are change stories. Peter, Andrew, James, and John leave behind their fishing business to follow Jesus and become fishers of men. Matthew leaves his tax office at Jesus’ call. Zacchaeus reworks his business model to be more ethical. One woman (Luke 7:36-50) leaves behind a life of sin to show love to Jesus.
Meanwhile, the tragedies in the gospels are those who refuse to change. Most of the Pharisees refuse to even consider that Jesus might be the messiah. The rich young ruler come to the cusp of following Jesus, only to go away sorrowful. Many tell Jesus they would love to follow him—but want to do other things first (Luke 9:57-62).
Would you change--
Jesus opposes the hardened, intractable, set-in-its-ways heart. Are you willing to change?
We have all experienced the sensation of innocence lost. We know what it is to carry guilt—for goodness and purity to feel farther and farther away—like we’ve permanently soiled something.
We usually don’t sit static with that feeling. We try to wish it away. We explain it away and justify ourselves. We seek other remedies, like the distraction of pleasure, substances, or companionship. We try to escape it. We try to outweigh it with good works. We try to do better. Yet this feeling of contamination lingers.
This is why it resonates with me to hear the leper say to Jesus: “If you will, you can make me clean”(Mark 1:40).
God taught the Jews about cleanliness and defilement for this reason: to keep them aware of the spiritual and moral dimensions of all their choices. Yet even when the Jews performed the sacrifices, that feeling lingered. There was still awareness of sin and defilement. These “gifts and sacrifices are offered that cannot perfect the conscience of the worshiper”(Heb 9:9). More simply, they ask questions like “What do I still lack?”(Matt 19:20).
The leper follows a different path. “You can make me clean.” He seeks cleanliness not from sacrifices, but from Jesus. To be sure, he is primarily speaking about healing from his leprosy. Yet the New Testament repeatedly describes the purity and cleanliness Jesus brings. “Rise and be baptized and wash away your sins, calling on his name”(Acts 22:16). Baptism is “an appeal to God for a good conscience”(1 Pet 3:21). We are saved “by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit”(Titus 3:5). All of these passages express that we come to Jesus and say, “You can make me clean.”
Seeking Jesus’ cleansing means I abandon my efforts to make myself clean. I acknowledge my need and inability. I trust his power and goodwill. In Jesus, my innocence is restored. My conscience is clear. I follow him from gratitude, not guilt or fear.
Are you clean? Jesus can make you clean.
Jesus calls his disciples to self-denial. “And he said to all, ‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me’”(Luke 9:23).
The issue is that we prefer self-indulgence to self-denial. Listen to advertising and you will be told how you deserve to be pampered, treated, and catered to. Almost no one is offering what is rigorous, uncomfortable, and painful.
The path of self-indulgence doesn’t lead to anywhere we want to go—not to discipline, skill, deep relationship, character, or insight. Everything good we want to pursue requires self-denial. So (naturally) Jesus puts it first. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.”
Among other things, self-denial means:
But the path of self-denial is not merely about saying no—it is about cutting off other avenues because we have a bigger, more important yes. “Let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.” We are happy to ignore other paths because we are following Jesus.
What are you denying yourself—and what are you pursuing?
Jesus wants his disciples to know that some people are bad for us.
One of Jesus’ teachings upsets the Pharisees and his disciples rush to tell him about it. “He answered, ‘Every plant that my heavenly Father has not planted will be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit’”(Matt 15:13-14). Instead of worrying about their response, Jesus tells his followers to “let them alone.”
This thread is everywhere in Jesus’ teaching. “Do not give dogs what is holy, and do not throw your pearls before pigs, lest they trample them underfoot and turn and attack you”(Matt 7:6). He warns about people who are ravenous wolves in sheep’s clothing (Matt 7:15) and that disciples are “sheep in the midst of wolves”(Matt 10:16). When they encounter people who reject their message, they are to “shake off the dust from your feet when you leave that house or town”(Matt 10:14). He warns them of the “leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees”(Matt 16:6). Some people are bad for us.
But this is not about elitism—or even primarily about influence. There are people who are dangerous to us. They will try to hurt us and exploit us and pollute us. We may initially think that we can influence them toward God, but repeated exposure only confirms that they continue to hurt us. They abuse our trust, ridicule our faith, manipulate us, exploit us, and hurt our feelings. They take our “pearls”—the things we value—and trample them, then turn to attack us. Listen to Jesus. “Let them alone.”
There are a few categories of people who Jesus singles out for this kind of treatment. There are those who are unwilling to listen (Matt 10:14). There are those who want their own desires and are willing to harm us to get them (Matt 7:15). There are those who are insincere in dealing with us because they have their own agendas (Matt 16:1-4). While there might be other examples of this kind of behavior, the point is that Jesus is teaching his disciples to use judgment in deciding that there are some people who need to be left alone.
Are there toxic people like this in your life? Listen to Jesus. As much as is possible, leave them alone.
Want to have better relationships? Think Golden Rule thoughts.
“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets”(Matt 7:12).
What if the roles were reversed? Most of our relationships are tarnished by selfishness. We are happy to think about “whatever you wish that others would do to you.” That’s easy! But Jesus teaches us to take what we want others to do us and “do also to them.” What would I want to happen if they were angry with me? If I were my wife, would I like being talked to this way? If others were gossiping about me, would I want my friend to join in?
What is fair and appropriate? Often we use others. They are just there for us to have an object for self-expression or to gain some benefit. Golden Rule thoughts force us to think about “whatever you wish that others would do to you,” considering our sense of what is fair and applying it to our own behavior. Is my treatment of others really warranted by the situation? Am I allowing my frustration, bitterness, jealousy, or insecurity to influence my behavior? Am I doing the right thing by them?
Am I treating others well? The beauty of the Golden Rule is that we instantly know whether we have violated it. “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.” Would I complain about this treatment if it was directed at me? Am I considering the impact of my behavior? Am I attempting to do good? This question—“Am I treating others well?”—is the heart of God’s revelation ("the Law and the Prophets").
Want to have better relationships? Think Golden Rule thoughts.