The end of the world as we know it

There are lots of films out there about the end of the world! One of the more recent ones was '2012' , which was actually released in 2009. If you watch the trailer, it’s all drama; the end of the world has been predicted by the Mayan civilisation. People think it won’t happen and when it happens it’s a surprise. One person says: “I thought we’d have more time”. The world crumbles to pieces, people fight for their lives. There’s human solidarity, one person says: “No matter what happens we’re going to all stay together” That’s 2012 the film. It’s just fiction, But what do you think will really happen at the end of the world, global warming, meteor strike, nuclear war, volcanic eruption? And then there’s that more probing question for us: Is Covid 19 spelling the end of the world as we know it? The familiar structures of stability; government, NHS, economy all suddenly seem more fragile now. How do we process all this?

Jesus’ teaching in Luke 21 will help us to work these things through. Let’s pray:

Father, help us to listen to and take to heart what your Son Jesus tells us will happen in the future. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Luke 21:5-6:

And while some were speaking of the temple [in Jerusalem], how it was adorned with noble stones and offerings, [Jesus] said, “As for these things that you see, the days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”

Jesus’ disciples had been admiring the beautiful, majestic, commanding temple of Jerusalem. It was the symbol of the Jewish nation, the Jewish religion, normality, the world as they knew it and Jesus just told them that the time was coming when this temple would be ruined. This would mean the end of the world as they knew it. Luke 21.7:

And they asked him, “Teacher, when will these things be, and what will be the sign when these things are about to take place?”

If you’ve read ahead and looked at the rest of Luke 21, you might think Jesus could have just answered: “Friends, I’m talking here about the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the temple in AD70, when emperor Titus invades. Prepare!” But, as so often, Jesus doesn’t do what we expect. He decides to teach the disciples, not just about the end of the world as they know it, but about the end of the world (full stop). And he does this by a kind of ‘prophetic foreshortening’: Jesus merges his teaching on the Fall of Jerusalem (in AD 70) and his teaching about his return to judge the world (at an unknown future date) into one. And Jesus intentionally uses alarmist, broad brush-stroke impressionistic painting style to paint word pictures to get us to feel the urgency of taking on board what he is saying and acting on it. Last week, we looked at some of the events which will figure prominently in the period between Jesus’ first and second coming, which we now live in. False religious leaders. Wars. Natural disasters. Today we’re going to look at the persecution which awaits Christians. And we’re going to look at two questions which Jesus asks each of us:

1. Are you ready to witness? (Luke 21.12-15)

It’s important to remember that here in Luke 21 Jesus is speaking to his disciples. So we’ll look firstly at Jesus’ message to them then – before we turn our attention to Jesus’ message to us now. Jesus cuts to the chase. He tells his discipes to prepare for prison. (In Luke 21.12, ‘before all this’ refers back to Luke 21.6 – Jesus is talking about what will happen to the disciples before destruction of the temple in AD 70):

But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues [which acted as Jewish law courts as well as places of worship] and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name's sake.

Jesus’ disciples are going to be arrested, imprisoned then brought before Jewish leaders and Gentile governors. Why? For ‘my name’s sake’ – for the sake of Jesus’ name. We see an example of this happening to two of the disciples, Peter and John, in Acts (Part 2 of Luke’s double volume ) Acts 3-4. In Acts 3, Peter heals a lame beggar in the name of Jesus. He says in Acts 3.6:

“I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”

Then in Acts 3.15-16 Peter speaks to a crowd of Jewish onlookers, using this healing in the name of Jesus as an opportunity to call them to repent:

“…you killed the Author of life, whom God raised from the dead. To this we are witnesses. And his name—by faith in his name—has made this man strong whom you see and know, and the faith that is through Jesus has given the man this perfect health in the presence of you all….”

As a result, many Jewish people turn to Jesus, and the Jewish leaders put Peter and John in prison for the night. The following day a crowd of influential leaders question them. Acts 4.7-12:

And when they had set them in the midst, they enquired, “By what power or by what name did you do this?” Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them, “Rulers of the people and elders, if we are being examined today concerning a good deed done to a crippled man, by what means this man has been healed, let it be known to all of you and to all the people of Israel that by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified, whom God raised from the dead—by him this man is standing before you well. This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

In Luke 21, Jesus tells his disciples to prepare for prison for his name’s sake, and that’s where they end up! But, as we’ve already seen from Acts 4, witnessing to the name of Jesus is not only the reason for them being put in prison, witnessing to the name of Jesus is also the purpose for them being put in prison! Acts 21.13 Jesus says: This will be your opportunity to bear witness. So ‘witnessing’ is not just living out the Christian faith, it’s speaking up about Jesus. And for Jesus’ disciples, prison is a time for gospel witness! What Jesus tells his disciples next is surprising! He tells them to not prepare their defence. Luke 21.14-15:

Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.

Jesus’ disciples didn’t need to worry that they would become tongue-tied at the critical moment, because the Holy Spirit would help them – and they would confound their opponents. And again this is exactly what happens in the Book of Acts. How did the Jewish leaders respond to Peter’s speech in Acts 4? Acts 4.13:

Now when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated, common men, they were astonished. And they recognized that they had been with Jesus.

Jesus’ message to us now. That’s them then. It’s time to think about us now. What can we learn?

i. Persecution opens up new opportunities for public witness

In the Book of Acts, God’s great plan to get the message of Jesus to the ends of the earth is not stopped by persecution, it’s served by it. We see this in Acts 8. After the death of Stephen, there is a great outbreak of persecution against the church and many believers are scattered throughout Judea and Samaria. What happens next? They go about preaching the word! It’s church growth through persecution! We see this with Paul in Acts 21-28. Why does it take him so long to get Rome? Answer: because he needs to go to prison – God has lined up lots of influential judges and kings for Paul to share the Gospel with!

We see in the example of some of places in the world today where the church is facing fierce persecution: China, Iran, Nepal and Algeria. These countries have the most spectacular church growth stories to tell! All this gives us hope for our situation in the UK. We know that the wave of secular humanist values is breaking upon us. We feel that our opinions are increasingly unwelcome. We see that Christians losing their jobs for their faith, or being brought to trial is no longer in the realm of fantasy it’s already happening. Where does all this leave our mission to make Jesus known? Doesn’t it mean we’ll have less opportunities to tell the UK about Jesus? No, it could well mean we have more opportunities for public witness. If we’re ready to witness to Jesus when we face persecution.

ii. God will give us special help to witness when really need it

Let’s look at Luke 21.14-15 again:

Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict.

It is important to not misuse or misunderstand Luke 21.14-15. These verses are not saying we shouldn’t prepare for evangelism. 1 Peter 3.15 says we should. These verses are not saying preachers shouldn’t prepare sermons. 1 Timothy 4.13-16 encourages preaches to work hard at word ministry. No Jesus’ promise in Luke 21.14-15 is specifically for Christians who find themselves suddenly landed in hot water for their Christian witness:
-if you find your job is at risk because of your Christian faith
-if a friendship is at risk because of your Christian witness
-if someone brings you to court because of your faith in Jesus

It’s easy to be fearful in such circumstances, not only of being cowardly, but also of being too tongue-tied and stressed to get a coherent sentence out let alone to witness to Jesus. Yet Jesus will help us.In such pressured circumstances, which Jesus may call some of us to face in future, we can trust that Jesus will help us to stand up and witness to Him in front of our persecutors.That’s Jesus’ first question to us. Are you ready to witness? Jesus’ second question to us is:

2. Are you ready to endure? (Luke 21.16-19)

Jesus continues to instruct his disciples (Luke 21.16-17):

You will be delivered up [from Luke 21.12 we know Jesus means ‘to synagogues and prisons’] even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name's sake.

Some of Jesus’ disciples were put to death. They were hated by many people, including family members. What about us? As well as the opposition from the wider culture, we must prepare for the painful opposition of friends and family to our Christian faith. I still remember one cold winter’s evening about fifteen years ago. I was at a Bible study group meeting in an evangelical church in Paris. A lady arrived late to the meeting with tears streaming from her eyes. I found out later that she had just been thrown out of her home by her Muslim parents for converting to Christianity.

For many of us, it’s subtler than that. But that doesn’t mean it’s not very painful. Disapproval from parents. Tension with siblings. Friendships suddenly cooling. Gossip from work colleagues. If you haven’t yet experienced these things as a Christian, you will. If you have experienced these things, you will again.Trust your heavenly Father’s care for you! What comfort does Jesus give to his disciples then – and to us now? “But not a hair of your head will perish”. (Luke 21.18). This is not in contradiction to Luke 21.16 where Jesus says some of his disciples will be put to death. The point Jesus is making is that all of his people, including you and I if we’re trusting in Jesus, are spiritually safe in Jesus and also physically safe too. Nothing can happen to us which is not first allowed by God in his sovereignty. We may die, but our lives are not ultimately in the hands of those who persecute us, but in God’s hands.

This summer I had the great joy of re-reading the autobiography of the nineteenth century Scottish pioneer missionary John Paton. John Paton was a missionary to the island of Tanna in the New Hebrides, (now Vanuatu). There’s a poignant moment in the book, when John Paton and another evangelist, after facing four years of constant danger on the island, are now surrounded by natives waiting to kill them:

My heart rose up to the Lord Jesus; I saw Him watching all the scene. My peace came back to me like a wave from God. I realized that I was immortal till my Master’s work with me was done. The assurance came to me, as if a voice out of Heaven had spoken, that not a musket would be fired to wound us, not a club prevail to strike us, not a spear leave the hand in which it was held vibrating to be thrown, not an arrow leave the bow, or a killing stone the fingers, without the permission of Jesus Christ, whose is all power in Heaven and on Earth.

That was the secret to John Paton’s endurance through so much danger, persecution, disease and grief. And this will be the secret to our endurance through persecution too. We need to trust that nothing, however awful, will happen to us that is not first allowed by the authority of Jesus. Are you ready to endure much persecution? You will be if you trust in Jesus’ care for you. Your reward? “By your endurance you will gain your lives”. (Luke 21.19).

I’ve asked you two questions today: Are you ready to witness? Are you ready to endure? Both questions have an expiry date – the return of Jesus.
When Jesus returns there will be no more opportunities to witness to people who don’t know him. When Jesus returns there will be no more persecution to endure. So while we wait for Jesus’ return, let’s urgently witness and patiently endure persecution. Let’s pray:

Father, as we await the return of Jesus, please give us courage to witness to Him more boldly, enable us to trust your fatherly care more deeply and help us to endure persecution more patiently. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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