The Lord's Day Morning
July 24, 2011
“My Words Will Not Pass Away”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke chapter 21 as we continue to make our way through the gospel of Luke together. We’re going to be looking at verses 25 to the end of the chapter together today, and continuing on a passage in which Jesus has been addressing His disciples about events that are both near and far away.
In this same passage, Jesus prepares His disciples for the tribulations and trials and persecutions that they are going to experience in the days leading up to and then surrounding the fall of Jerusalem. He's speaking about forty years ahead of those events. Forty years after Jesus speaks these words in AD 70, Jerusalem falls to the Romans. The things that He said would come about — the temple in the passage that we studied last time earlier in Luke 21 came about in AD 70, and then were again completed in AD 130 when the city was invaded again. And Jesus is preparing His disciples for these events but He's also preparing all of His disciples for the things that will lead up to His second coming. He wants all of His disciples to have their eye on His second coming and to factor that into the way that we live.
It's interesting, if you look at the idea of the coming of Christ, it is the dominant thing in the New Testament about the last things that Christians reflect upon. Over and over and over, more than our personal death, more than even heaven, the New Testament focuses believers on the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ as that culminating moment in which His kingdom is established. And the thing that our hearts long for – we long to see Christ come, we long to see Him reign. What's the very last prayer of the New Testament? “Come Lord Jesus, come quickly!” It's on the minds of early Christians and Jesus is preparing His disciples in this passage to factor that into their thinking and their living day to day. And so throughout this whole passage, what we see is the teaching about the end times connected to our daily living.
When I was in seminary, one of the systematic theology courses that all of us were required to take was called Eschatology and Ethics. Now eschatology is just the fancy, technical term for the study of the last things. And I always thought, “They've got that turned around. It ought to be Ethics and Eschatology because surely the last things ought to be last.” Shouldn't you study the last things last? But as I've grown a little bit in my Christian life, I realize, well actually the seminary had it the right way around because Jesus wants us to factor the truth about the last things into our behavior now. That is, the last things inform present behavior. That's a Biblical pattern and you’ll see that pattern played out in the passage before us today. So if you’ll turn your attention to Luke chapter 21 verse 25, we’ll read God's Word. And before we do it, let's pray and ask for His blessing.
Heavenly Father, this is Your Word, inspired by Your Holy Spirit. Every word of it is profitable; every word of it is meant to edify us, to equip us, to build us up. Open our eyes then to behold wonderful things in Your Word, and by Your Spirit enable us to embrace it in our hearts and to live it out in our lives, in Jesus' name, amen.
This is the Word of God. Hear it in Luke 21:
“’And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.’
And He told them a parable, ‘Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.
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. For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. But stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place, and to stand before the Son of Man.’
And every day He was teaching in the temple, but at night He went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. And early in the morning all the people came to Him in the temple to hear Him.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
There is a criticism of the Christian teaching on the end times; there is a criticism on the Bible's teaching on the last things that goes something like this: Because the Bible teaches that Jesus is coming again and that this heaven and earth will pass away and this age will pass away and there will be a new heavens and a new earth and there will be an age to come, this keeps Christians from being interested in, involved in, and effective in this life and in this world. In fact, there's even a slogan for this particular view. You've heard it in the individual: “He's too heavenly minded to be earthly good.” Jesus’ teaching shows that that criticism misunderstands what Bible's teaching, what Jesus’ teaching on the end times, on the last things is for. Jesus’ teaching about the last things is designed to equip us for today. Christian belief about the future informs how we live now. It doesn't lead us to withdraw from involvement in the world, from engagement with the world, from bringing to bear Christian influence in the world, from being salt and light in a dark world; it in fact equips us to do that. And Jesus shows us specifically in this passage in several ways, and I want to concentrate on four things in particular in what, in many ways, is a challenging passage.
The four things I want you to be on the lookout — let me just give you four words as we work through the passage together: Confidence, Trust, Watch, and Pray. Confidence, Trust, Watch, and Pray because Jesus’ teaching about His coming in this passage, and Jesus’ teaching about the tribulations that Christians will experience and that will be perplexing to the world at large, is all designed to equip us for the living of the Christian life.
CONFIDENCE IN THE LORD’S COMING
The first thing that we learn is that the believer is to face these things with confidence. Listen to the cataclysmic words that Jesus uses in this passage. “There will be signs in sun and moon and stars…the earth, on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and foreboding of what is coming in the world.” Does that sound familiar? Just turn on the evening news. Whether it's people fretting about yet another coming economic meltdown or whether it's fearing the terror which is ever present on every side, or whether there is a concern about wars to come and problems of various sorts, medical crisis, there is a fear and a foreboding that pervades our culture. And Jesus says that in the face of this, in the face of these dramatic and sometimes even cataclysmic things, believers are to be confident. They’re to face these things with confidence. Listen to how He speaks about this. “When you see these things take place,” verse 28 — what's your response? Are you to fear and to be filled with foreboding like unbelievers? No! Listen to what He says. “Straighten up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.” Jesus says that as you see these cataclysmic things taking place around you, your response is not to be filled with fear and foreboding but to be confident because this is a sign that your redemption is drawing near. The kingdom of God is near; the King is returning soon.
Because of Christ, because of grace, because of the Gospel, what should terrify the world and does, should actually comfort believers, because when we see this kind of tribulation and cataclysm our response is to straighten up and look up and to remember that the redemption is near. The kingdom of God is near. The Lord's coming is one moment, one hour, one day sooner. The day of our redemption is near. I love what J.C. Ryle says about this. He says, “The very hour that the worldly man's hopes shall perish shall be the hour when the believer's hope shall be exchanged for joyful certainty and full possession.” And so Jesus says, “Remember now, when you see these great signs and you see these trials and tribulations, your response is not trembling, because when I come, for you, that will be a great day of celebration. All the things that you have waited for will now be yours in possession.”
You know we sing about that in one of the great Wesley hymns about the second coming of Christ. Take your hymnals in hand and turn with me and look at number 318. It may be the finest hymn about the second coming written in the English language. “Lo! He Comes with Clouds Descending.” And the interesting thing that Charles Wesley does in this hymn is he contrasts how believers and unbelievers will look at this same event. And of course it's a totally different view. Stanza 1: “Lo! He comes with clouds descending, once for favored sinners slain; thousand thousand saints attending swell the triumph of His train.” And what are they singing? “Alleluia! Alleluia! God appears on earth to reign.” So the reaction of believers is, “This is what we've been waiting for!” But listen to what he describes as a reaction to those who don't believe. “Ev’ry eye shall now behold Him, robed in dreadful majesty; those who set at naught and sold Him, pierced, and nailed Him to the tree, deeply wailing, deeply wailing, shall the true Messiah see.”
You know when we read what the Bible says about the end, it is an awesome thing and often it causes believers to tremble, but Jesus is saying, “As awesome as these things are that surround My coming, the ultimate response of the believer to them ought to be confidence and rejoicing” because His coming is good news for those who have embraced the Good News. If, by grace, you have trusted in the Lord Jesus Christ as He is offered in the Gospel, His coming is the best possible news that you could ever experience in this sin-sick world. And so Jesus is saying, “Have confidence!” Even with these awesome signs, the believer ought to respond in confidence.
TRUSTING IN THE LORD’S COMING
But He goes on and He emphasizes that we need to be prepared in trust for His coming. We are ready for His return confidently, but we also are to be ready for His return trustingly, and you’ll see this in two statements that He makes in the passage. Look at verse 27. After these great signs that He describes in verses 25 and 26 are seen, He says, “And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” Now you know that that is a reference to Daniel chapter 9 verse 13. And the Son of Man, who appears before the Ancient of Days in that passage, and is given a kingdom that will not end. And this is an indication of Jesus’ claiming deity here. “One coming on clouds with power and glory” — that's a picture of God in the Old Testament, so this is a very clear and emphatic indication of Jesus to His disciples that He is God. He's the second person of the Trinity. He is fully divine as well as fully human. And He's saying this to evoke trust in His disciples in His Word and worship of His person.
And then notice what He goes on to say next. He says, “When these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, your redemption is drawing near.” And then look down at verse 32. “This generation will not pass away until all has taken place.” Then verse 33, “Heaven and earth will pass away but My words will not pass away.” Now that is absolutely stunning. Jesus is saying, “Creation itself is impermanent, but My words are not impermanent, they are everlasting; they will never go away.” The ground that your pew is sitting on is impermanent, but Jesus’ words are permanent. It's an astounding claim, and of course to any believer familiar with his Hebrew Bible, you immediately think of Isaiah 40 verses 6 through 8, especially verse 8, don't you? “The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the Word of our God stands forever.” And here's Jesus saying, “My words are forever. My words will last longer than this world. The heavens and the earth, these things are impermanent, but My words last forever.” He is saying that His words are more permanent than creation itself. And why is He saying this? Because He's saying to His disciples, “You can bank on My words. They are of enduring value and they are of a tested truth. Believe what I am saying to you. Don't be discouraged by the words of skepticism that you hear from those who do not believe My words. You can trust My words. They’ll never ever go away.”
And of course that's a statement that only God Himself can make! If I were to say to you that, “This great nation of ours will one day perish but my words will go on,” you would say, “What did you eat for breakfast this morning, Ligon? What's gotten into you that you think your words are going to last longer than our nation?” Well here's Jesus not just saying that His words are going to outlast Israel but His words are going to outlast the world! They’re going to be around when the world is gone! Only God in the flesh could say these things, and He says these things so that we might face His coming trustingly. So there's the first thing — confidence, and the second thing — trust.
WATCH YOURSELF IN PREPARATION OF THE LORD’S COMING
But then look at the instruction that He gives to us. He tells us to watch. Look down in verse 34. “Watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the cares of this life and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap.” Now what is remarkable to me is who Jesus is saying these words to. He's not saying this to rebuke the Pharisees or the scribes or the Sadducees for worldly living. He's not saying this to a bunch of unrepentant sinners. He's saying it to His own disciples. He's saying it to Peter and to John and to James. He's saying, “Look, you need to be watchful of yourself so that you’re not living a life of dissipation and drunkenness and all caught up in the cares of this life so that you lose sight of the most important things and the things that last.” He's telling His disciples that, and if He needs to tell His disciples that, how much more do we need to hear that? If John needed to hear that, if Peter needed to hear that, if James needed to hear that, we need to hear that loud and clear. He's calling us to watchfulness.
Again, J.C. Ryle has these words to say. “We are to live on our guard like men in an enemy's country. We are to remember that evil is about us and near us and in us and that we have to contend daily with a treacherous heart an ensnaring world and a busy devil. Remembering this, we must put on the whole armor of God and beware of spiritual drowsiness. As Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:6, ‘Let us watch and be sober.’” He's talking about self-watchfulness, watching your own heart so that you’re not caught up with the way that this world lives — dissipation and drunkenness. And He's talking about making sure that the focus of our lives is not taken up with the cares of this world as if there is nothing more than this world. He's saying, “Live so that when I return I find you doing what you ought to be doing.”
Some of you know that I had the privilege to serve as a Senate page when I was a teenager. And on one particular day when the Senate was not in session and there were no senators around — in fact there were hardly any of the Cloak Room workers. There was just one guy who was in charge of the Republican Cloak Room there and he went out to take a break and left me and another page from Oklahoma in the Republican Cloak Room. And what do two fifteen, sixteen year old guys do when you’re sitting around, nothing to do at that moment? We decided it would be fun to wrestle (laughter), so we started wrestling in the Republican Cloak Room! And right as this guy from Oklahoma had me upside-down ready to put them suplex on me, in walks Senator James Buckley from New York, and he dropped me right there. I landed on my — I had a purple ear for two weeks! We were supposed to be there in case we were needed to do a specific job, but we forgot where we were and what we were supposed to be doing. And Senator Buckley was very, very kind. We could have gotten in a lot of trouble, but he was very, very kind to us when he caught us in the midst of that little wrestling routine.
But look, this can happen to believers. If Jesus needs to warn His disciples not to forget what they’re about, not to forget what they’re supposed to be doing, not to be so caught up in the cares of this life that we don't focus on things of eternal importance, then it can happen to us. Can't it? And that's what Jesus is saying in this passage. Be confident, trust, but watch yourself. Watch your life. Make sure that you’re not so caught up in the things of this world that you lose sight of the things that will last forever. The servant of God must see that there's only one state of mind which becomes the believer, and that state is a perpetual preparedness to meet Christ. That's the third thing.
PRAYFULLY PREPARING YOURSELF FOR THE LORD’S COMING
The fourth thing is this — we are to pray. Notice what Jesus says here. Verse 36 — “Stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place and to stand before the Son of Man.” If we are to live in this world and to be adequately prepared for the coming of the Lord, Jesus says pray. Now isn't it striking to you that in this passage Jesus says, “Stay awake and pray,” and what is Luke going to record in the next chapter when Jesus is in the Garden of Gethsemane and He's asked His disciples to pray with Him for a little while? What is He going to say? They fell asleep and they didn't pray. Now here's Jesus here saying, “Stay awake and pray,” and they fall asleep and they don't pray. Now if that's not a picture and a warning to you, I don't know what is.
Sinclair Ferguson this last week has been meditating on William Carey, the great Baptist missionary to India who was at the very fountain head of the modern missions movement. And if you will remember on one occasion, Carey wrote back to his congregation in England and he said, “India is like a deep, dark mine.” And then he said to the congregation in that letter, “I will go down in that mine, but you must hold the ropes for me.” And what he meant by “you must hold the ropes for me,” of course is “you must pray for me.” You know, “I'm willing to go down in that deep, dark mine, but you've got to hold the ropes and the way you do it is you pray for me.” And then Sinclair began to meditate on that. He said, “What lay behind the remarkable days of spiritual awakening in which William Carey lived? Well we know the answer now — corporate prayer.” We know that Bible believing Christians were praying for world evangelism one hundred years before the great century of missions broke forth, so we know the answer to this question now. What lay behind this great spiritual awakening? Corporate prayer.
He goes on to say, “Today, by contrast, the vast majority of churches have abandoned corporate prayer.” Nobody denies the importance of corporate prayer; it's just that they don't do it. Most churches, most people neglect to practice. And then he says this — “If these words seem exaggerated, try two tests. First, ask your friends, ‘Does your church believe in corporate prayer? If so, what percentage of the membership meets to pray?’ Second, whenever you visit a church, check the worship bulletin's list of weekly activities taking place and count the number of times ‘prayer’ appears. I think you will find the results illuminating and perhaps disturbing. A question haunts me,” he goes on to say, “What if a litmus test of the spiritual condition of our churches is our growth in praying together as the early church did so often? A concern burdens me. Has coming to corporate prayer meetings become so socially awkward and embarrassing? Do we lack courage or time or are we paralyzed by guilt or past failure? Surely the Lord is able to help us overcome such obstacles, so it is out of this burden and with empathy that I write to encourage you to do one simple thing. I didn't say easy, but one simple thing. With a potential to transform your life and congregation and city and state, all that is required is some discipline and perhaps a little courage.” Here it is — “Resolve to attend, unless providentially hindered, one or other of your church's weekly prayer times.”
Do we take heed to Jesus’ call that we stay awake and pray? And are we praying for the kinds of kingdom things that Jesus tells us to pray for in this very passage – that we would have strength to endure these trials and to stand before the Son of Man? Is that a regular part of our corporate prayer? My friends, the way that we prepare for the coming of the Lord is confidently, trustingly, watchfully, and prayerfully.
Heavenly Father, thank You for the words of the Lord Jesus Christ which will not pass away. Thank You for the way that You instruct us about the end in such a way that it matters how we live today and informs how we live today. Grant, O God, that we wouldn't just think about these things or agree with these things with our minds, but that we would embrace them in our hearts and actually live them out, in Jesus' name. Amen.
Well, let's sing about the firm foundation of Jesus’ words using hymn number 94.
Receive now the blessing that is for all those who believe on Christ, even and especially when He comes with clouds descending. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.