Signs of the (End) Times

29 And he told them a parable: “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees. 30 As soon as they come out in leaf, you see for yourselves and know that the summer is already near. 31 So also, when you see these things taking place, you know that the kingdom of God is near. 32 Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all has taken place. 33 Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.

34 “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. 35 For it will come upon all who dwell on the face of the whole earth. 36 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.”

37 And every day he was teaching in the temple, but at night he went out and lodged on the mount called Olivet. 38 And early in the morning all the people came to him in the temple to hear him.  Luke 21:29-38 ESV

One can only imagine the look of shock and dismay on the faces of Jesus’ disciples as He continues to disclose the Father’s grand plan of redemption. Ever since they began to follow Jesus, these men had been driven by a shared hope that He was their long-awaited Messiah. Over time, they grew in their confidence that He was the anointed one of Israel, the seed of Abraham and the son of David who would ascend to the throne and re-establish the Davidic dynasty and restore the nation of Israel to power and prominence once again. But in His Olivet Discourse, Jesus seemed to dash their hopes by revealing aspects about the future that did not line up with their expectations. He had already told them that He would be arrested, tried, and put to death in Jerusalem.  But now, He was telling them that they too would suffer at the hands of the same men who would put Him to death.

“… they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake.” – Luke 21:12 ESV

Then He added insult to injury by declaring that the city of Jerusalem will be invaded and the house of God will be destroyed. He warned them that “there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people” (Luke 21:23 ESV). Then He added…

“…there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity…” – Luke 21:25 ESV

“…people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world…” – Luke 21:26 ESV.

“…the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” – Luke 21:26 ESV

But all of these devastating signs and disturbing events will culminate with His return.

“And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” – Luke 21:27 ESV

We tend to read these pronouncements with a sense of apathy because we know how the story ends. We have the completed canon of Scripture and, thanks to the book of Revelation, have been given a glimpse into God’s plan for mankind’s future. We have been given additional details that help make sense of what Jesus was telling His disciples on that fateful evening. They found His words to be cryptic and difficult to comprehend because these cataclysmic events had not been part of their religious training. They were mentally and emotionally unprepared for such things.

But Jesus was attempting to open their eyes and help them develop a long-term perspective regarding His Kingdom. They were focused on the here-and-now, and having trouble understanding that the talk of His coming death in Jerusalem was anything but bad news or something to be avoided at all costs. This entire chapter contains the surprising and difficult-to-comprehend words of Jesus as He reveals the bigger picture regarding God’s plan of redemption. Jesus’ death on the cross would be just the beginning of the much larger, comprehensive plan of God. It would also include His resurrection as well as His return to His Father’s side. But, even more importantly, it would require His eventual return to earth as the conquering King.

And while Jesus knew that there would be a long delay before His return would take place, He wanted His disciples to live with a sense of eager anticipation. If they expected it to happen and kept their eyes open, looking for the signs of its approach, they would be able to endure the struggles that were coming their way.

After deluging His disciples with a tidal wave of disturbing news concerning future events, He gave them a brief respite by telling them a parable. In effect, it was a visual lesson. As they sat on the hillside on the Mount of Olives, there was likely a fig tree nearby. So, Jesus took advantage of its close proximity and said, “Look at the fig tree, and all the trees” (Luke 21:29 ESV).

By diverting His disciples’ attention to the tree, Jesus was using something from the temporal and natural world to convey eternal and spiritual truths. He used the visual lesson of a fig tree in order to help the disciples understand that there would be visible, recognizable signs associated with His coming. The budding of a fig tree was a natural indication that summer was drawing near. It was an unmistakable and irrefutable fact of nature. In the same way, Jesus stated that the signs of His return would be undeniable. He even assured them that “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32 ESV).

But what does that mean? Was He saying that the events associated with the end times would take place during the lifetimes of His disciples? The answer would seem to be no. The appearance of leaves on a fig tree was a sign that summer was approaching. It did not mean that summer had arrived. It simply served as a presage or foreshadowing of what was to come.

Jesus is using this natural phenomenon to disclose that, while they were alive, they would begin to see the early signs of His return. The budding of a fig tree provides a premonition or portent of something else to come. The buds do not mean summer has arrived, but that it is coming. In the same way, the disciples would live to see signs that would point to His eventual and inevitable return. They would not be alive when He returned, but they would be given clear indications that it was going to happen.

Each generation of believers has been given signs that point to His imminent and inevitable return. These signs act as assurances of God’s faithfulness and are meant to encourage us to continue to wait eagerly and hopefully.

Jesus was letting His disciples know that the earth would continue to go through all kinds of struggles, including earthquakes, famines, floods, disasters, and even wars. The apostle Paul reminded the believers in Corinth: “Those who use the things of the world should not become attached to them. For this world as we know it will soon pass away” (1 Corinthians 7:31 NLT). The apostle John wrote, “this world is fading away, along with everything that people crave” (1 John 2:17 NLT). Even Jesus, earlier in this very same discourse, warned His disciples:

“…you will hear of wars and threats of wars, but don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place, but the end won’t follow immediately. Nation will go to war against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in many parts of the world. But all this is only the first of the birth pains, with more to come.” – Matthew 24:6-8 NLT

But while there will be clear signs along the way, the actual day and date of the Lord’s return will remain a mystery. We will be given assurances of its coming, but we will not know the exact time. That’s why Jesus commanded them to “stay awake at all times, praying that you may have strength to escape all these things that are going to take place” (Luke 21:36 ESV). The days ahead would be difficult. And while the years following Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension would be marked by great joy at the birth of the church and its global expansion, Christ’s followers would also encounter tremendous persecution and opposition.

His referral to “this generation” in verse 32 seems to be an indication that the disciples represent a new dispensation or age among mankind. They will become the first fruits of those who make up the church age. But they will also represent all those who live after the cross and who face the choice between salvation through faith in Christ alone or the condemnation and death that come through disbelief.

“This generation” includes all those who will witness Christ’s ascension and all those who will see His second coming. They and the world they inhabit will not be destroyed until all these things take place. Believers and unbelievers will inhabit this planet until the bitter end. And Jesus assures His disciples that they can trust His words. His word will prove more lasting and permanent than the universe itself.

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away.” – Luke 21:33 ESV

The signs they saw along the way were meant to remind them that God’s plan was not yet done. There was more to come. Any persecution they encountered was intended to remind them that He would one day return and complete the redemptive work that God had given Him. In the meantime, while they waited, they were to live with their hopes firmly focused on the promises of the future and refuse to be distracted by the temporal cares of this world.

“…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 ESV

The signs would come. The difficulties would be real. But the return of the Lord would take place just as God had planned.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Your Redemption is Drawing Near

20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart, and let not those who are out in the country enter it, 22 for these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 23 Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.

25 “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, 26 people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 27 And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. 28 Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”  Luke 21:20-28 ESV

As Jesus and His disciples sat on the Mount of Olives gazing across the Kidron Valley at the majestic temple gracing the pinnacle of Mount Zion, He broke the news to them that God’s house would one day be destroyed.

“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.” – Luke 21:6 ESV

Then He followed this distressing news with the disturbing revelation that the temple }s destruction would be accompanied by wars, famines, and earthquakes. Not only that, they could expect to experience persecution, suffering, and betrayal; even by their own family members. Some of them would even end their lives as martyrs for the cause of Christ.

And as if all that was not bad enough, Jesus announced that Jerusalem itself would be besieged and destroyed.

“…when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you will know that the time of its destruction has arrived. – Luke 21:20 NLT

The unexpected and disturbing nature of Jesus’ words left the disciples reeling. How could this be? Why would God allow His temple to undergo desecration and destruction at the hands of His enemies? Yet, that is exactly what Jesus announced would happen. And in 70 A.D., Jesus’ prophetic words of became a devastating reality. It was in August of that fateful year, after a five-month-long siege, that Titus and the Roman army entered Jerusalem and destroyed the second temple. Jesus predicted this event and warned that when it came, everyone in Judea and Jerusalem should make places to run for their lives.

“…those in Judea must flee to the hills. Those in Jerusalem must get out, and those out in the country should not return to the city…” – Luke 21:21 NLT

This tragic event would be a partial fulfillment of the  “days of vengeance” as foretold by the prophets of God.  But many of the Old Testament prophecies had a now-not-yet aspect to them. When Jesus prophesied about the destruction of the temple, His words also included a now-not-yet dimension. He was inferring far more than the disciples realized. Yes, within just a few decades, the nation of Israel would experience yet one more invasion by a foreign power that ended in the destruction of their capital and the demoralization of its people. But it would not spell the end of Israel. As bad as things would be in 70 A.D., Israel would rebound and survive.

But Jesus’ words contain a far more dire and long-term prognosis for Israel’s future. He describes a day when “there will be disaster in the land and great anger against this people. They will be killed by the sword or sent away as captives to all the nations of the world. And Jerusalem will be trampled down by the Gentiles until the period of the Gentiles comes to an end” (Luke 21:23-24 NLT). 

Both Matthew and Mark recorded this very same warning from Jesus in their gospel accounts. They both report that Jesus described the nature of this future event as unprecedented in scope and scale.

“For there will be greater anguish than at any time since the world began. And it will never be so great again. In fact, unless that time of calamity is shortened, not a single person will survive. But it will be shortened for the sake of God’s chosen ones.” – Matthew 24:21-22 NLT

And all three gospel writers reveal that this future event will be accompanied by remarkable cosmic signs and supernatural environmental disasters.

“…there will be strange signs in the sun, moon, and stars. And here on earth the nations will be in turmoil, perplexed by the roaring seas and strange tides. People will be terrified at what they see coming upon the earth, for the powers in the heavens will be shaken.” – Luke 21:25-26 NLT

But when the people on earth least expect it, they will suddenly “see the Son of Man coming on a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27 NLT). This is a reference to Jesus’ second coming, when He returns to earth as the King of kings and Lord of lords. This will take place at the end of the seven years of Tribulation that immediately follow the Rapture of the Church. The timeline goes something like this: As 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18 indicates, the Lord will one day return for His bride, the church. This Rapture or “snatching up” up of God’s people will remove all believers from the face of the earth. This will also remove the restraining influence that God’s people provide. With believers no longer present to mitigate the devastating influence of evil, the world will become a place marked by unrestrained sin and rebellion against God. Yet, even then, God will redeem a remnant from among those living on earth in those days. They will end up as martyrs, the unfortunate recipients of the Satan-inspired wrath of the Antichrist. And while God will rain down a series of devastating judgments upon the world, most of those living in those days will refuse to honor Him as God. So, at the end of the seven years, God will send His Son to earth a second time. 

The apostle John describes the nature of Jesus’ second coming in vivid terms.

Then I saw heaven opened, and a white horse was standing there. Its rider was named Faithful and True, for he judges fairly and wages a righteous war. His eyes were like flames of fire, and on his head were many crowns. A name was written on him that no one understood except himself. He wore a robe dipped in blood, and his title was the Word of God. The armies of heaven, dressed in the finest of pure white linen, followed him on white horses. From his mouth came a sharp sword to strike down the nations. He will rule them with an iron rod. He will release the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty, like juice flowing from a winepress. On his robe at his thigh was written this title: King of all kings and Lord of all lords. – Revelation 19:11-16 NLT

The disciples of Jesus will be long gone before this event takes place. Yet, Jesus told them, “…when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luk2 21:28 ESV). They were going to witness the “birth pains” that would preview the coming of His return, but they would not live long enough to see Him “coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27 ESV). But they could rest in the knowledge that God’s grand redemptive plan for the world was impeccable and unstoppable. His will would eventually be done on earth as it is in heaven.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The End

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?” And he said, “See that you are not led astray. For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is at hand!’ Do not go after them. And when you hear of wars and tumults, do not be terrified, for these things must first take place, but the end will not be at once.”

10 Then he said to them, “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. 11 There will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences. And there will be terrors and great signs from heaven. 12 But before all this they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors for my name’s sake. 13 This will be your opportunity to bear witness. 14 Settle it therefore in your minds not to meditate beforehand how to answer, 15 for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict. 16 You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. 17 You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. 18 But not a hair of your head will perish. 19 By your endurance you will gain your lives.  Luke 21:7-19 ESV

This was not what the disciples wanted to hear. After delivering the shocking news that the beautiful temple would one day be destroyed, Jesus led His disciples out of the city of Jerusalem and up the Mount of Olives. This location just across the Kidron Valley from the eastern walls of the city, provided an elevated vantage point from which to view the capital and its glorious temple. From this secluded spot, Jesus continued to teach His disciples and prepare them for the fateful days that lie ahead. His address to these men has come to be known as the Olivet Discourse.

As expected, the disciples were struggling with Jesus’ stunning pronouncement that the sacred house of God was going to be destroyed. This concept would have been unfathomable to the disciples, and would have caused them to consider the last time the temple of God had been destroyed. It had taken place more than six centuries earlier, when the Babylonians had conquered Jerusalem, leaving a path of death and destruction in their wake. In the process, they destroyed the majestic temple that Solomon had constructed. And for 70 years, the city and its once-magnificent temple sat abandoned until God orchestrated the return of a remnant of the people from their exile in Babylon. Under the leadership of Nehemiah, this ragtag group of former slaves had been able to rebuild and restore the temple and the city. But it would be more than five centuries later before Herod the Great orchestrated a massive remodeling project that would greatly enhance and expand the temple.

As the disciples looked back across the Kidron Valley, they could see the facade of this beautiful structure gleaming in the afternoon sun. This sight, coupled with Jesus’ words, led four of the disciples to approach Him for more information (Mark 13:3). James, John, Peter, and Andrew wanted to know more, so these two sets of brothers asked Jesus for an explanation.

“Teacher,” they asked, “when will all this happen? What sign will show us that these things are about to take place?” – Luke 21:7 NLT

Their questions reveal that they were focused on the destruction of the temple. They wanted to know when this horrific act of judgment would take place and if there would be any warning signs. Basically, they were wanting to know if it was going to happen soon and if they would have ample warning so they could be out of the city when it took place. But their full attention appears to have been on the city and the temple. Despite all of Jesus’ earlier warnings about His pending death in Jerusalem, these men were more concerned about the possible destruction of the temple than anything else.

In his gospel account, John records another Passover, three years earlier, when Jesus had cleared the temple of the moneychangers and vendors. The Jewish religious leaders had demanded that Jesus show them a sign that would prove His authority to do such a thing. And Jesus had responded:

“Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up.” – John 2:19 ESV

But these learned men failed to catch the symbolic nature of His answer. Instead, they took Him literally, viewing His answer as utterly ridiculous and impossible.

“It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and will you raise it up in three days?”  – John 2:20 ESV

John goes on to explain, Jesus “was speaking about the temple of his body” (John 2:21 ESV). But the disciples would not connect the dots until after Jesus had died and been raised back to life. So, as they sat on the Mount of Olives watching the rays of the setting sun reflect off the gold inlay of the temple, they were fixated on its destruction, but not on the fast-approaching death of their Lord and Master.

But Jesus, sensing their confusion and concern, provided them with a foretaste of things to come.

“Don’t let anyone mislead you, for many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and saying, ‘The time has come!’ But don’t believe them. And when you hear of wars and insurrections, don’t panic. Yes, these things must take place first, but the end won’t follow immediately.” – Luke 21:8-9 NLT

Jesus accelerated the narrative to a day in the far-distant future, when the end of the age was to take place. He compressed and combined a great many events into a single answer, providing His disciples with an overview of things to come. He knew they were fixated on the day in which they lived. They were wanting to know when the temple would be destroyed and what the conditions would be like when it happened. But Jesus was speaking of future events that would take place long after the disciples were dead and gone.

Roughly four decades later, the Romans would destroy the city of Jerusalem and its magnificent temple. Some of the disciples would live long enough to witness that fateful day. And yet, Jesus was speaking of events that still remain unfulfilled, even in our day. He described those who would show up in that future day, claiming to be Him and declaring themselves to be the messiah or savior offering deliverance. He warned of a future marked by wars, civil unrest, and natural disasters. But these “signs” would be nothing but the “birth pains” (Mark 15:8) that precede the fast-approaching climax of the redemptive history. They will merely preface the end of the age.

Jesus was providing James, John, Peter, and Andrew with a comprehensive overview of the eschaton or end times. But He didn’t do so in easy-to-understand terms that fall into a simple chronological sequence. The disciples had no idea what was about to happen. In just a matter of days, their world would be rocked by the death of Jesus. But then, three days later, He would rise again. Then, He would return to His Father in heaven and send the Spirit to indwell and empower the disciples for the work He had commissioned them to do. As a result, they would plan a major role in the dissemination of the gospel and the subsequent growth of the church.

But centuries would pass and, even as the church continued to grow, the spiritual state of the world would continue to decay. And it will continue do so until Jesus returns to the earth. The downward spiral of humanity’s spiritual condition will  accelerate and intensify, reaching its lowest point until the rapture of the church takes place. This mass exodus of all believers from the face of the earth will usher in a time of tribulation, “such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matthew 24:21 ESV).

Jesus was giving these four men a crash course in eschatology or the study of end times. While their minds were fixated on the temple and its possible destruction, Jesus was trying to get them to see the bigger picture. There was far more going on than they realized. The temple was not as important and integral as they believed it to be. Jesus’ emphasis on nations and kingdoms subtly reveals that the people of Israel will no longer be the focal point of God’s redemptive story. It is not that He will abandon them, but that He will use their rejection of His Son and their subsequent role in His death, as an impetus to include people of every tribe, nation, and tongue into His family.

And the apostle Paul reminds us that God has great plans in store for His chosen people. Their initial rejection of the Messiah did not permanently invalidate His covenant commitments to them. He will remain faithful and fulfill every promise He has made to them.

Did God’s people stumble and fall beyond recovery? Of course not! They were disobedient, so God made salvation available to the Gentiles. But he wanted his own people to become jealous and claim it for themselves. Now if the Gentiles were enriched because the people of Israel turned down God’s offer of salvation, think how much greater a blessing the world will share when they finally accept it. – Romans 11:11-12 NLT

But Jesus wanted these four men to understand that while much of what He just described was to take place in the distant future, they were to be on their guard. The days ahead were going to be filled with uncertainty and the very real threat of persecution.

You will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” – Luke 13:13 ESV

With His death, resurrection, and ascension, their lives would get much more complicated. In the process of taking the gospel to the nations, they would face trials and difficulties of all kinds. But they would have the indwelling Spirit of God to guide, protect, and empower them. They needed to stop worrying about the temple of God and begin thinking about the will of God. What was He doing in their midst? What did He have planned for them to do in the days ahead? And Jesus told them that. while things would get far worse before they got better, they could rest assured that their lives were held securely in God’s hands.

“But not a hair of your head will perish! By standing firm, you will win your souls.” – Luke 21:18-19 NLT

According to Jesus, the future would be filled with all kinds of uncomfortable and settling signs.

Sign 1: False Messiahs

Sign 2: Wars, threats of wars, and insurrections

Sign 3: Global conflict

Sign 4: Natural disasters

Sign 5: Personal Persecution 

Sign 6: Denial of Christ and Spiritual Apathy 

Sign 7: The Perseverance of the Saints and the Spread of the Gospel 

But in spite of the fact that many would end up deserting and denying Jesus, there would be those who endured and persevered to the end. They would remain faithful, resulting in the spread of the good news about the Kingdom throughout the world. This includes the period of time from Jesus’ ascension all the way to the end. And it will be at that time that Jesus returns.

This incredible passage provides us with a glimpse into the future of not only Israel but the world. Jesus was preparing His disciples to think globally and eternally. He was attempting to move their point of reference from the here-and-now to the yet-to-be. These men had been obsessed with their own immediate context. They had hoped that Jesus was going to establish His Messianic Kingdom in their lifetimes. They had a difficult time accepting His repeated predictions of His death in Jerusalem. And the very thought of the temple being destroyed was unfathomable to them. That was inconceivable and unacceptable. But Jesus had a long-term perspective that was focused on God’s eternal plan of redemption. He was not done yet. He had to die. He had to rise again. He had to return to His Father’s side. And then, one day, when the time is right, He will return to earth and complete His Father’s will.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Justice Worth Waiting For

1 And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” – Luke 18:1-8 ESV

The topic at hand is the Second Coming of Christ. Jesus has just answered a rather tongue-in-cheek question posed by the Pharisees requesting a date for His coming kingdom. But Jesus saw through their little charade and knew that they were really demanding a supernatural sign that would prove His claims to be the Messiah. So, He responded by telling them, “the Kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the Kingdom of God is already among you” (Luke 17:19-20 NLT).

They were looking for a physical kingdom brought about by a physical revolution. but Jesus had come to restore the rule and reign of God to earth through the Spirit-transformed lives of sinful men and women. He was bringing about a spiritual revolution, not a military one. But even the disciples were having a difficult time grasping that concept. They too longed for Jesus to march into Jerusalem and bring about a dramatic change in the status quo. They wanted the Romans eliminated and the nation of Israel elevated back to its former glory. In a sense, they were hoping for a transformation of the social and political status of their nation. But while Jesus cared deeply for the Jewish people, He had come to redeem the world and not just a single people group. God was not abandoning the Jewish race, but instead, He was using them to accomplish His grand redemptive plan for the entire world. Through Jesus, He would fulfill His original mandate that the descendants of Abraham would be a blessing and a light to the nations.

Jesus continued to help His disciples understand the nature of God’s plan. He told them that there would be a second advent when He would come to earth and conquer all the enemies of God. What they were hoping for would actually happen, but not in their lifetimes. So, what were they to do in the meantime? If His first advent was not going to result in an earthly kingdom, how were they supposed to survive while the Romans continued to keep their entire nation under its iron fist? Luke answers these questions with his opening line of chapter 18:

“And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart.” – Luke 18:1 ESV

Jesus patiently and lovingly enlightened His confused disciples by sharing additional details regarding His current mission and further insights into God’s future plans for the world. Jesus has already warned the disciples that the day was coming when He would leave them. He was to suffer and die at the hands of the Romans but would rise from the dead and return to His Father’s side in heaven. And even after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus, the disciples would find themselves living in difficult days and longing for His return.

“The time is coming when you will long to see the day when the Son of Man returns, but you won’t see it. People will tell you, ‘Look, there is the Son of Man,’ or ‘Here he is,’ but don’t go out and follow them.” – Luke 17:22-23 NLT

Jesus wanted them to know that, after He left them, life would go on as it always has. He compared it to the days before the flood.

“In those days, the people enjoyed banquets and parties and weddings right up to the time Noah entered his boat and the flood came and destroyed them all.” – Luke 17:27 NLT

It would be like in the days of Lot, when the people of Sodom “went about their daily business—eating and drinking, buying and selling, farming and building” (Luke 17:28 NLT). And Jesus clarifies that “it will be ‘business as usual’ right up to the day when the Son of Man is revealed” (Luke 17:30 NLT).

Mankind was going to continue down the very same path it had taken right after the fall. Nothing was going to change. Yet, the world would be radically different because it would contain millions of men and women whose lives had been transformed by the Gospel. By placing their faith in Jesus Christ, these people would become citizens of the kingdom of God, living as exiles and strangers on earth while they wait for their King’s second coming. This community of like-minded individuals would bring the rule and reign of God to earth through their very lives. Through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, they would live in obedience to the Father’s will and function as the King’s ambassadors on earth. Like Adam and Eve, they would be tasked with serving as His vice-regents, bearing His image, and serving on His behalf until He returns.

That is why Jesus told His disciples that persistent prayer would need to be a part of their survival strategy as they awaited His return. He told a parable about a poor widow who was in an ongoing dispute with another party. It seems likely that because of her status as a widow, this woman was being taken advantage of by this other individual. Unable to remedy the problem, the widow was forced to make an appeal to the court. But Jesus describes this judge as a man “who neither feared God nor cared about people” (Luke 18:2 NLT). In other words, he was godless and unrighteous.

But the woman, desperate for someone to come to her aid, repeatedly brought her case before the court. At first, the judge simply ignored her pleas. But the woman was persistent and insistent. She demanded that the judge rule in her favor. And Jesus reveals that the woman’s stubborn refusal to give up finally got through to the judge.

“…finally he said to himself, ‘I don’t fear God or care about people, but this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!’” – Luke 18:4-5 NLT

She wore him down. Driven by her pressing need for justice, the woman would not give up until she received it. And her persistence paid off. But what is interesting is that Jesus makes the judge the point of the story.

Learn a lesson from this unjust judge. – Luke 18:6 NLT

Jesus does not focus the disciples’ attention on the persistent pleas of the woman, but instead, He tells them to learn a lesson from the godless and unjust judge.

“Even he rendered a just decision in the end. So don’t you think God will surely give justice to his chosen people who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will grant justice to them quickly! – Luke 18:7-8 NLT

The judge finally gave in and did the right thing. Not because he wanted to do the right thing, but because he was tired of being badgered by the unrelenting demands of the widow. This fictional story was intended to encourage the disciples to keep their eyes focused on their just and righteous God. They were going to face difficulties in the days ahead. There would be many who would take advantage of them. The very religious leaders who would eventually put Jesus to death would come after them once He was gone. That is why He wanted them to know that they could appeal to God. But, like the widow, they would need to be persistent in their pleas.

With this parable, Jesus is not promising His disciples that God will remediate all their trials and conflicts immediately. When Jesus says, “he will grant justice to them quickly,” He is not suggesting that God will solve all their problems on the spot. He is simply stating that they can always know that they will receive justice from God. He will never ignore them. History tells us that most, if not all, of the disciples, died martyr’s deaths. During their lifetimes, they suffered greatly. Many were arrested, tried, imprisoned, and beaten. But God never turned His back on them. Just a few chapters later, Luke records another discussion Jesus had with His disciples, where He warned them about the dark days ahead.

“But before all this occurs, there will be a time of great persecution. You will be dragged into synagogues and prisons, and you will stand trial before kings and governors because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell them about me.” – Luke 21:12-13 NLT

We see this same scenario played out in the book of Revelation. The apostle John is given a glimpse into heaven during the time of the Great Tribulation. There he sees the throne room of God where a large gathering of individuals is calling out to God for justice. They are those who have been martyred by the Antichrist during the days of the Tribulation.

When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of all who had been martyred for the word of God and for being faithful in their testimony. They shouted to the Lord and said, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you judge the people who belong to this world and avenge our blood for what they have done to us?” Then a white robe was given to each of them. And they were told to rest a little longer until the full number of their brothers and sisters—their fellow servants of Jesus who were to be martyred—had joined them. – Revelation 6:9-11 NLT

They plead with God to do something. But He responds by encouraging them to “rest a little longer.” There are more who must be martyred before the end comes. But the end will come and when it does, it will come in the form of the Son of God returning to earth to bring judgment and mete out justice.

Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! The one sitting on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war. – Luke 19:11 NLT

From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has a name written, King of kings and Lord of lords. – Revelation 19:15-16 NLT

But while God will not fail to answer every plea for justice, it may not come at the time or in the form we expect. We must wait for the end, trusting that God will accomplish His divine plan by sending His Son back to earth a second time. But Jesus takes this parable and uses it to encourage His disciples to not lose faith.

“But when the Son of Man returns, how many will he find on the earth who have faith?” – Luke 18:8 NLT

In a sense, Jesus is reminding His disciples that God will be faithful, but asking if they will remain so? Will they stop pleading and praying? Will they stop believing the promise of the Son’s eventual return? God will vindicate. God will mete out judgment and justice. But it will not take place until the end. How long are we willing to wait and how faithful will we remain as we do so? That is the question.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Fear God, Not Man

1 In the meantime, when so many thousands of the people had gathered together that they were trampling one another, he began to say to his disciples first, “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy. Nothing is covered up that will not be revealed, or hidden that will not be known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops.

“I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him! Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And not one of them is forgotten before God. Why, even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not; you are of more value than many sparrows.

“And I tell you, everyone who acknowledges me before men, the Son of Man also will acknowledge before the angels of God, but the one who denies me before men will be denied before the angels of God. 10 And everyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but the one who blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven. 11 And when they bring you before the synagogues and the rulers and the authorities, do not be anxious about how you should defend yourself or what you should say, 12 for the Holy Spirit will teach you in that very hour what you ought to say.” – Luke 12:1-12 ESV

It seems that the closer Jesus got to Jerusalem, the intensity of the exchanges between He and the Jewish religious leaders increased exponentially. The Sanhedrin, the high council of the Jews, was headquartered in the capital city and they were particularly wary of this renegade Rabbi peddling His influence on their turf. And the religious leaders had reason to worry because Jesus was proving to be just as popular in Judea as He had been in Galilee. Luke reveals that wherever Jesus went, “the crowds grew until thousands were milling about and stepping on each other” (Luke 12:1 NLT).

And wherever the crowds gathered, the Pharisees and scribes tended to show up like carrion circling a corpse. They never let Jesus out of their sight and were constantly trying to trick Him into saying or doing something that they could use against Him.

…the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees became hostile and tried to provoke him with many questions. They wanted to trap him into saying something they could use against him. – Luke 11:53-54 NLT

But Jesus refused to shy away from the confrontation, choosing instead to warn His disciples about the true intentions of these well-respected religious leaders. To the average Jew, the Pharisees and Sadduccees were considered the spiritual upper class of society. They were wealthy, influential, and powerful. And they were also revered for their apparent religious superiority. But Jesus was not fooled by their outward displays of personal piety and fervent law-keeping. He knew their hearts and wanted His disciples to know the truth about these pseudo-spiritual elitists, which led Him to say, “Beware of the yeast of the Pharisees—their hypocrisy” (Luke 12:1 NLT).

This kind of talk must have shocked His disciples. Not only would they have viewed it as disrespectful, but they would have deemed it to be highly dangerous. It had already become clear to them that the Pharisees were not big fans of Jesus, so why would He poke the bear? What possible good could come from making such incendiary statements about such powerful individuals? But Jesus wasn’t out to win friends and influence enemies. He was preparing His followers for life in His absence. His earthly mission was quickly coming to a close and it would not be long before He had to leave the work of the ministry in the hands of His disciples. So, He wanted them to know the truth.

Jesus didn’t want His disciples to emulate the ways of men – even those who appeared to be the icons of religious virtue. According to Jesus, the Pharisees and their peers were nothing more than hypocrites. The Greek word He used to describe them is hypokrisis, which was commonly used to describe actors in a play. Jesus was exposing the Pharisees as nothing more than pretenders. Like thespians in a Greek drama, they wore masks to disguise their true identity and fool the audience into thinking they were someone else. It was all a cleverly orchestrated charade. But unlike actors in a play, the Pharisees had become self-deceived, believing that they were exactly who they portrayed themselves to be.

And Jesus wanted His disciples to know that this delusional mindset was contagious and dangerous. Like yeast that spreads through a batch of dough, the fake faith of the Pharisees had begun to permeate its way through the nation of Israel. The religion of the Jews had become all about outward displays of righteousness with very little emphasis on the true condition of the heart. And Jesus was fully aware that this mentality had already crept into the thinking of His disciples. They had a pharisaical outlook on life, measuring their spirituality by actions rather than attitude. But Jesus wanted them to know that behavior was always a byproduct of belief and not the other way around.

This led Him to state, “The time is coming when everything that is covered up will be revealed, and all that is secret will be made known to all” (Luke 12:2 NLT). Jesus is revealing that the true condition of the Pharisees’ hearts will soon be exposed. With His coming arrest, trial, and crucifixion, the disciples will get an up-close and personal glimpse into the dark recesses of these men’s hearts. Their true intentions will be put on display for all to see, and it will not be a pretty picture. 

The sinister and secretive planning of the high priest and his fellow members of the Sanhedrin will become readily apparent. Their obsession to eliminate Jesus will finally come to fruition and all their carefully crafted questions and well-orchestrated encounters with Jesus will be exposed for what they were all along: Hypocritical lies motivated by hate and emanating from sin-darkened hearts.

What the disciples needed to know was that the day was coming when the roles would be reversed. They had been living in fear of the animosity of the religious leaders. They knew these men were powerful and could make or break the ministry of Jesus. But according to Jesus, the disciples would soon be declaring the good news of the kingdom of God from the housetops. Despite the threat of persecution, they would carry the message of the Gospel to “Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8 NLT).

This led Jesus to encourage His disciples to live fearlessly and faithfully even in the present hour. They had no reason to fear the high priest or the rest of the Sanhedrin. Yes, these men were powerful, but they were nothing when compared with God Almighty.

“Dear friends, don’t be afraid of those who want to kill your body; they cannot do any more to you after that. But I’ll tell you whom to fear. Fear God, who has the power to kill you and then throw you into hell. Yes, he’s the one to fear.” – Luke 12:4-5 NLT

Jesus clearly acknowledges that the religious leaders had the power and authority to take a man’s life. He was well aware that they would play a major role in determining His own death. But He wanted the disciples to understand that God was sovereign. The influence of these men was purely physical and temporal. They could take a man’s life but had no power over his eternal life. They could kill but they couldn’t condemn. They could cast a man into the grave but had no authority to cast a man into hell. But God could. He was sovereign over all things, including a man’s death and the fate of his eternity.

The Pharisees could have cared less about Jesus and His disciples. They viewed them as little more than thorns in their side that needed to be removed and disposed of. But God placed a high value on Jesus’ followers. The Creator-God who cares for the insignificant sparrow cared for them. So much so, that He was aware of the number of hairs on each of their heads. The Pharisees didn’t know a single disciple’s name, but God knew everything about them, including their eternal state.

With that amazing reality in mind, Jesus encouraged His disciples to focus their attention on the mission at hand. They were not to be distracted or deterred by the threats of the Pharisees. Instead, they were to boldly proclaim the message of Jesus’ Messiahship to the ends of the earth.

“I tell you the truth, everyone who acknowledges me publicly here on earth, the Son of Man will also acknowledge in the presence of God’s angels.” – Luke 12: 8 NLT

Their faithfulness to follow through on their commission would reap significant rewards. And while the Pharisees and their fellow members of the Sanhedrin would threaten and oppose them, the disciples would one day hear the words of Jesus, saying, “Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!” (Matthew 25:23 NLT).

But the Pharisees faced a far different fate.

“But anyone who denies me here on earth will be denied before God’s angels. Anyone who speaks against the Son of Man can be forgiven, but anyone who blasphemes the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven.” – Luke 12:9-10 NLT

They refused to acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God and the Messiah of Israel. As a result, they would be denied access to God’s Kingdom. The very men who believed themselves to be at the pinnacle of the spiritual mountain would one day find themselves barred from God’s presence. These men would pay dearly for their refusal to acknowledge Jesus as the Messiah and for attributing His Spirit-enabled power to Satan.

But Jesus encourages His disciples by telling them that the very same Spirit would indwell and empower them in the days to come.

“…the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what needs to be said.” – Luke 12:12 NLT

He didn’t sugarcoat the future. He clearly warned them that persecution and literal trials were going to be a part of their experience. But they would find themselves empowered by the Spirit of God. Despite the threats of the Pharisees, the disciples would boldly confess Jesus before men. No pretending. No pretext. No play-acting. These men would discover the truth behind the promise Jesus made to them just prior to His ascension into heaven.

“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere—in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The End Will Come

14 “But when you see the abomination of desolation standing where he ought not to be (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 15 Let the one who is on the housetop not go down, nor enter his house, to take anything out, 16 and let the one who is in the field not turn back to take his cloak. 17 And alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! 18 Pray that it may not happen in winter. 19 For in those days there will be such tribulation as has not been from the beginning of the creation that God created until now, and never will be. 20 And if the Lord had not cut short the days, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days. 21 And then if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Christ!’ or ‘Look, there he is!’ do not believe it. 22 For false christs and false prophets will arise and perform signs and wonders, to lead astray, if possible, the elect. 23 But be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand.” Mark 13:14-23 ESV

The disciples had asked what they believed to be a simple question for which they hoped to get a simple answer.

“…when will these things be, and what will be the sign when all these things are about to be accomplished?” – Mark 13:4 ESV

But Jesus rarely, if ever, gave simple answers. The four disciples, who had posited their question to Jesus while sitting on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem, had been anxious to know the exact timing of the temple’s destruction. His earlier announcement of this event had left them stunned and more than a little bit concerned. But Jesus ended up providing them with a highly condensed overview of the eschatological future. He pieced together a host of end-times events that would culminate with His return to the earth.

The disciples believed Jesus to be their long-awaited Messiah, and they had fully expected Him to set up His Kingdom on earth in their lifetimes. That is why His repeated references to His death in Jerusalem had been so difficult for them to accept. And His mention of the destruction of the royal city of Jerusalem further frustrated their hopes of a restored and revitalized Israel. These men were living in the here-and-now, with their hopes fully focused on the immediate inauguration of His reign and their personal participation in His new Kingdom.

Yet, Jesus wanted them to know that there was far more going on they realized. He had not come to set up an earthly Kingdom – at least, not yet. There were other events that would have to occur before He took His rightful place on the throne of David in Jerusalem. And Jesus mentions one such event: “the abomination of desolation” Mark 13:14 ESV). Whether or not the disciples understood this reference is unclear. But Jesus, well acquainted with the Hebrew scriptures, reaches back into the book of Daniel and utilizes a prophecy from the book of Daniel.

“And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing. And the people of the prince who is to come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary. Its end shall come with a flood, and to the end there shall be war. Desolations are decreed. And he shall make a strong covenant with many for one week, and for half of the week he shall put an end to sacrifice and offering. And on the wing of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.” – Daniel 9:26-27 ESV

This prophecy was partially fulfilled in 167 BC, when Antiochus Epiphanes, the king of the Seleucid Empire, profaned the temple in Jerusalem by erecting an altar to Zeus and slaughtering swine on it. This blatant desecration of the temple was followed by a series of other devasting decrees, including the criminalization of the rite of circumcision and the requirement of all Jews to offer sacrifices to Zeus. These unacceptable demands infuriated the Jews and ultimately led to the Maccabean revolt.

But like many Old Testament prophecies, this one had a now-not-yet aspect to it. While the actions of Antiochus had partially fulfilled Daniel’s predictions, Jesus was revealing that there was a future element to this prophecy that remained as yet unfulfilled. When Jesus had prophesied regarding the destruction of the temple, His words had also included a now-not-yet dimension. The temple in Jerusalem would be destroyed by Titus in 70 AD, but this would only be a partial fulfillment of Jesus’ words. The disciples were being given a glimpse into the distant future when the full scope of Jesus’ predictions would take place.

Jesus is revealing events that will take place in conjunction with His second coming. There will be another desecration of the temple, but it will not take place in the lifetimes of the disciples. This future event will precede His return and usher in a time of great tribulation on the earth. Jesus describes it as an unprecedented period of suffering, like nothing that has ever happened before.

“For there will be greater anguish in those days than at any time since God created the world. And it will never be so great again.” – Mark 13:19 NLT

He warns that those who are alive when it happens should do everything in their power to run for their lives.

“Then those in Judea must flee to the hills. A person out on the deck of a roof must not go down into the house to pack. A person out in the field must not return even to get a coat. How terrible it will be for pregnant women and for nursing mothers in those days. And pray that your flight will not be in winter.” – Mark 13:14-18 NLT

The Daniel passage to which Jesus refers speaks of “one who makes desolate” (Daniel 9:27 ESV). This individual will wield great power and become “the prince who is to come” who  “shall destroy the city and the sanctuary” (Daniel 9:26 ESV). This future world leader will be the Antichrist, who will appear on the scene at the beginning of the seven years of Tribulation. He will rise to power, make a treaty with the nation of Israel, and use his great influence to coordinate the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem. For three-and-a-half years, things will appear to be going well, but then all hell will break loose. He will end up breaking his treaty with Israel, turning his wrath against God’s people, setting up an idol of himself in the temple in Jerusalem, and launching an all-out offensive against all those who refuse to worship him. And this will begin a period of great tribulation like nothing the world has ever seen before.

Knowing that this information has left His disciples stunned, Jesus assures them that God will have everything in full control.

“But for the sake of the elect, whom he chose, he shortened the days.” – Mark 13:20 ESV

Even during those dark days, God will be choosing to redeem a remnant from among His people, setting them aside as His own. The church, made up primarily of Gentile believers, will have been removed from the earth just before the period known as the Tribulation. With the Rapture of the church, the only ones remaining on earth will be God’s chosen people, the Jews, and all the unbelieving Gentiles. Yet God will continue to redeem and rescue, resulting in the salvation of many from every tribe, nation, and tongue, many of whom will become martyrs at the hands of the Antichrist.

But those days will come to an abrupt end. They will last only as long as God has ordained, and they will culminate with the return of His Son to the earth and with the establishment of His earthly Kingdom.

So, Jesus warns His disciples to be wary. In just a few days, He will offer His life as a sacrifice for the sins of mankind. He will die on a Roman cross and then be raised back to life and return to His Father’s side in heaven. But He will return one day. And Jesus wants His disciples to know that they will be rumors concerning His return. Along the way, there will be those who claim to be Him, but they are to be ignored as liars and deceivers. These charlatans may even be able to perform signs and wonders, giving credibility to their claims. But they are to be rejected because the Tribulation will be the final sign that must happen before Jesus returns again.  And He tells James, John, Peter, and Andrew, “be on guard; I have told you all things beforehand” (Mark 13:23 ESV). 

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Despised by the World

18 “If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. 19 If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. 20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours. 21 But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me. 22 If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have been guilty of sin, but now they have no excuse for their sin. 23 Whoever hates me hates my Father also. 24 If I had not done among them the works that no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin, but now they have seen and hated both me and my Father. 25 But the word that is written in their Law must be fulfilled: ‘They hated me without a cause.’

26 “But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.” John 15:18-27 ESV

From the very outset of His public ministry, Jesus faced opposition. It began immediately after His baptism when the Holy Spirit led Jesus into the wilderness where He was tempted by Satan. Jesus, who had just received the blessing of His Heavenly Father, found Himself in a face-to-face confrontation with the prince of this world.

God had just pronounced Jesus as “my dearly loved Son, who brings me great joy” (Matthew 3:17 ESV), but Satan saw Jesus as a powerful enemy who had to be distracted from His God-given mission or be destroyed. Satan attempted to disqualify Jesus by offering Him tempting alternatives to the will of God. He proffered a range of attractive options that were designed to distract Jesus from His ministry objective and render Him useless to God. But Jesus did not take the bait. As the author of Hebrews states, Jesus was “tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15 ESV). 

But while Jesus had won the battle over Satan in the wilderness, the war was far from over. Satan simply shifted his tactics. Almost immediately, the enemy implemented a new and less direct strategy that utilized guerrilla warfare tactics. He called upon all the weapons at his disposal to wage war against God and His Son. Satan knew that Jesus was the Messiah and had been sent by God to free humanity from their life of bondage under his merciless rule. This was, as Paul made clear, a spiritual battle of epic proportions.

…we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:12 NLT

But that does not mean that the battle remained invisible and relegated to the spiritual realm. This spiritual conflict quickly spilled over into the natural world as the enemy put into play those human agents who were under his control. The gospels provide ample evidence that Jesus faced human opposition to His ministry. And His most formidable and vehement foes proved to be the religious leaders of Israel. It is no coincidence that Jesus labeled these men as the sons of Satan.

“For you are the children of your father the devil, and you love to do the evil things he does. He was a murderer from the beginning. He has always hated the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, it is consistent with his character; for he is a liar and the father of lies.” – John 8:44 NLT

These men were revered by the common people as icons of righteousness and virtue. Yet, Jesus saw through their pious-looking facades and recognized them for what they were: deceptive hypocrites who stood opposed to His mission because they were enemies of God. Jesus exposed them for what they were.

“If God were your Father, you would love me, because I have come to you from GodAnyone who belongs to God listens gladly to the words of God. But you don’t listen because you don’t belong to God.” – John 8:42, 47 NLT

They may have fooled the people, but Jesus was fully aware of their true identity and intentions.

“You say, ‘He is our God,’ but you don’t even know him.” – John 8:52 NLT

And His exposure of them only enraged them further. The more they saw of Jesus, the more angry they became. His messages and miracles failed to impress or persuade them. Ironically, they accused Jesus of being demon-possessed and under the influence of Satan. And their growing revulsion to Jesus turned into an obsession to kill Him. They would stop at nothing to see to it that this madman from Nazareth was put to death.

Now, just hours from that perverted wish becoming a reality, Jesus informs His disciples that they could expect more of the same. As if all He has told them so far had not been enough, Jesus reveals that their relationship with Him has put a target on their backs. They were guilty by association, and they would find themselves hated for His sake. And while Jesus refers to the world as the source of that hatred, He is speaking of the same Jewish religious leaders who would orchestrate His death. And these men were representatives of the nation of Israel at large. That is why John opened his gospel account with the statement: “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11 ESV).

Throughout this passage, Jesus uses the pronoun, “they.”

“…they will also persecute you…” – John 15:20 ESV

“…all these things they will do to you on account of my name.” – John 15:21 ESV

“…they do not know him who sent me.” – John 15:21 ESV

“…they have no excuse for their sin. – John 15:23 ESV

“…they have seen and hated both me and my Father. – John 15:24 ESV

Then, quoting from the Hebrew Scriptures, Jesus reveals the identity of these individuals.

More in number than the hairs of my head
    are those who hate me without cause;
mighty are those who would destroy me,
    those who attack me with lies. – Psalm 69:4 ESV

The “world” to which Jesus was referring was the nation of Israel. His own people hated Him without cause, and they were out to destroy Him. So, He wanted His disciples to know that they would suffer the same treatment because of His name.

“But all these things they will do to you on account of my name, because they do not know him who sent me.” – John 15:21 ESV

The battle that had been raging since the beginning had always been about the identity of Jesus. That is what He means by “my name.” Jesus was the Son of God and everything He had done from the day of His baptism until that very moment had been intended to reveal His identity as the Messiah, the Savior of the world. And the disciples, because they would continue to proclaim the name of Jesus in His absence, would find themselves facing the same level of animosity and opposition.

And because Jesus would later command them be His “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV), they would face even greater opposition as Satan turned the entire world order against them. The disciples would eventually take the Gospel to the non-Jewish world and discover that the enemies of God were made up of Jews and Gentiles. While they would find those eager to hear and accept the message of grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, they would also encounter fierce opposition. It is believed that all of the disciples eventually died as martyrs, after having faithfully spread the good news concerning Jesus to the world.

But as the disciples stood in the darkness of the garden, listening to these foreboding words from Jesus, they must have been filled with fear and trepidation. Jesus had just told them, “If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20 ESV). This must have brought to mind an earlier warning He had given them.

“You will be dragged into synagogues and prisons, and you will stand trial before kings and governors because you are my followers. But this will be your opportunity to tell them about me.” – Luke 21:12-13 NLT

What Jesus was describing was unsettling and disturbing. It must have filled His poor disciples with despair and disillusionment. But Jesus wanted them to know that their relationship with Him had dramatically altered their lives for eternity. Nothing would ever be the same. Just three years ago, they had each been minding their own business, when an unknown and unimpressive Rabbi from Nazareth made their acquaintance. And their lives would never be the same. Little did they know at the time, that in choosing to follow Jesus they were leaving the world behind. Yes, they would still live in it, but they would no longer be part of it. By becoming friends with Jesus they had become enemies of the world.

“The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.” – John 15:19 NLT

The Jewish religious leaders would turn their hatred for Jesus onto the disciples and any others who chose to follow Him. And as this small group of men and women grew in number and spread their influence from Jerusalem and Judea to Samaria and the ends of the earth, Satan would throw everything in his arsenal against them. But little would he know that he was fighting a losing cause. The victory had been won. With Jesus’ death on the cross, He would bring an end to Satan’s vice-like grip on humanity. Jesus would conquer sin and death, bringing salvation to all those who would accept it.

And, anticipating His disciples’ sense of fear and foreboding, Jesus reminds them once again that they will not be alone.

“But I will send you the Advocate—the Spirit of truth. He will come to you from the Father and will testify all about me. And you must also testify about me because you have been with me from the beginning of my ministry.” – John 15:26-27 NLT

They were going to face intense opposition, but they would do so in the power of God. The world would hate them, but the love of God for them would protect them and flow from them. They would pick up the mantel of ministry given to them by Jesus and proclaim His name with boldness and joy – even in the face of persecution and the threat of death.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Salvation, Suffering, and Scripture

10 You, however, have followed my teaching, my conduct, my aim in life, my faith, my patience, my love, my steadfastness, 11 my persecutions and sufferings that happened to me at Antioch, at Iconium, and at Lystra—which persecutions I endured; yet from them all the Lord rescued me. 12 Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted, 13 while evil people and impostors will go on from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:10-17 ESV

Timothy found himself surrounded by false teachers and foolish people whose lack of spiritual discernment caused them to accept their heresy as truth. But Paul was not going to allow his young disciple to lose hope or to abandon his ministry objectives. Timothy still had work to do. The gospel must be preached, new believers must be educated in the teachings of Christ, the truth of God’s Word must be defended, and the promises of God must be believed. At all costs.

If Timothy needed encouragement or an example to follow, he need only look to the life of Paul, his mentor, and friend. After all, Paul was writing this letter while confined to prison in Rome. And the sole reason he was there was because of his faith in Christ and his commitment to preaching the gospel. He had been falsely accused by those who opposed his message and despised him so much that they would do anything to see him eliminated. A group of 40 Jews had even made a pact, sealed by an oath, that they would not eat until they had personally assassinated Paul.

The next morning a group of Jews got together and bound themselves with an oath not to eat or drink until they had killed Paul. There were more than forty of them in the conspiracy. They went to the leading priests and elders and told them, “We have bound ourselves with an oath to eat nothing until we have killed Paul. So you and the high council should ask the commander to bring Paul back to the council again. Pretend you want to examine his case more fully. We will kill him on the way.” – Acts 23:12-15 NLT

So, just in case his memory had lapsed, Paul provided Timothy with a sobering reminder of his own ministry experience. It had been anything but easy. From the moment he had received his commission as an apostle, Paul had found himself encountering opposition and having to face persecutions and sufferings. But he had done so with patience, faith, love, and steadfastness. This is not a display of arrogant pride or boasting on Paul’s part. He is simply reminding Timothy of what he had already witnessed with his own eyes. Paul recounts three different occasions when he had suffered persecution for doing what he had been called to do. The first took place in Antioch of Pisidia.

It was there that Paul and Barnabas preached the gospel of Jesus Christ in the synagogues and saw a great many people come to faith.

Many Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, and the two men urged them to continue to rely on the grace of God. – Acts 13:43 NLT

But they also met with increasing opposition on the part of the Jews.

But when some of the Jews saw the crowds, they were jealous; so they slandered Paul and argued against whatever he said. – Acts 13:45 NLT

And it wasn’t long before their jealousy and slander turned to acts of physical violence.

Then the Jews stirred up the influential religious women and the leaders of the city, and they incited a mob against Paul and Barnabas and ran them out of town. – Acts 13:50 NLT

Having been railroaded out of Antioch by the Jews, Paul and Barnabas made their way to Iconium. But as Luke records in the book of Acts, things did not improve.

The same thing happened in Iconium. Paul and Barnabas went to the Jewish synagogue and preached with such power that a great number of both Jews and Greeks became believers. Some of the Jews, however, spurned God’s message and poisoned the minds of the Gentiles against Paul and Barnabas. But the apostles stayed there a long time, preaching boldly about the grace of the Lord. And the Lord proved their message was true by giving them power to do miraculous signs and wonders. But the people of the town were divided in their opinion about them. Some sided with the Jews, and some with the apostles.

Then a mob of Gentiles and Jews, along with their leaders, decided to attack and stone them. When the apostles learned of it, they fled to the region of Lycaonia—to the towns of Lystra and Derbe and the surrounding area. And there they preached the Good News. – Acts 14:1-7 NLT

But things had taken a rather odd and nearly deadly turn in Lystra. Their miraculous healing of a crippled man had caused the inhabitants of Lystra to mistake them for gods in human form. They had even tried to offer sacrifices to Paul and Barnabas, declaring them to be the Greek gods, Zeus and Hermes. But Paul had taken the opportunity to declare the good news, calling their audience to “turn from these worthless things and turn to the living God” (Acts 14:15 NLT).

But the crowds had remained undeterred by Paul’s words, still convinced that they must be gods. And then, a contingent of Jews from Antioch and Iconium had shown up, whose accusations against Paul and Barnabas had transformed the adoring crowd from worshipers to executioners.

Then some Jews arrived from Antioch and Iconium and won the crowds to their side. They stoned Paul and dragged him out of town, thinking he was dead. But as the believers gathered around him, he got up and went back into the town. The next day he left with Barnabas for Derbe. – Acts 14:19-20 NLT

And Paul reminds Timothy, “You know all about how I was persecuted in Antioch, Iconium, and Lystra—but the Lord rescued me from all of it” (2 Timothy 3:11 NLT). Paul had miraculously walked away from his own stoning, making his way to Derbe, where he had continued to faithfully proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ. Then, according to Luke, Paul and Barnabas had retraced their steps, returning to the very cities where they had faced opposition and Paul had been stoned and left for dead.

After preaching the Good News in Derbe and making many disciples, Paul and Barnabas returned to Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch of Pisidia, where they strengthened the believers. They encouraged them to continue in the faith, reminding them that we must suffer many hardships to enter the Kingdom of God. – Acts 14:21-22 NLT

The inhabitants of these three cities must have been shocked when Paul and Barnabas showed back up. But no one would have been more surprised than those who had placed their faith in Christ as a result of the teaching of these two men. They had probably assumed they would never see Paul and Barnabas again. But not only did they return, they provided a living lesson in what it means to suffer on behalf of Christ. It is likely that Paul still displayed the cuts and bruises from his stoning in Lystra.

And Paul reminds Timothy of the message he had delivered to the faithful in Lystra, Iconium, and Antioch: “everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will suffer persecution” (2 Timothy 3:12 NLT).

The reality of the Christian life is that the godly will suffer while the ungodly will appear to prosper. False teachers will continue to deceive and mislead the innocent and immature. The wicked will appear to get away with their ungodly behavior, even flourishing, while those who follow Christ find themselves facing trials and difficulties of all kinds.

But Paul encourages Timothy to remain faithful at all costs, reminding him to consider the history of his own conversion and calling. Timothy had been raised by a godly mother and grandmother who had saturated his life with the Scriptures. And that immersion in the Old Testament had prepared Timothy to understand the truth regarding Jesus and His claim to be the Messiah of Israel.

You have been taught the holy Scriptures from childhood, and they have given you the wisdom to receive the salvation that comes by trusting in Christ Jesus. – 2 Timothy 3:15 NLT

Timothy knew that Jesus had been the fulfillment of all the Messianic passages found in the Hebrew Scriptures. He was the Son of David and the long-awaited Messiah. And He was Timothy’s Savior. And just as the Scriptures had prophesied Jesus’ first coming, they revealed that Jesus would one day come again. That’s why Paul reminds Timothy to keep trusting God’s written Word because it reveals the truth concerning His Living Word.

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work. – Acts 3:16-17 NLT

Things were not going to be easy. Living the Christian life was not going to be a walk in the park. But Paul wanted Timothy to know that he could endure whatever came his way because he could trust in the Word of God. It had the power to instruct, discipline, encourage, and equip God’s people. It was divinely inspired and, therefore, spiritually empowered to help every believer not only survive but thrive. Salvation, suffering, and Scripture are three non-negotiables in the life of the believer. Saving faith will result in suffering. It comes with the territory. But Scripture, which reveals the redemptive plan of God made possible through faith in Christ, also provides everything we need to live Christlike lives as we await His Son’s return.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Future Glory Trumps Present Suffering

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering— since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, 10 when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed. 11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power, 12 so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ. 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12 ESV

Paul has informed the Thessalonians that he uses them as an example for the other congregations to whom he ministers.

We proudly tell God’s other churches about your endurance and faithfulness in all the persecutions and hardships you are suffering. – 2 Thessalonians 1:4 NLT

But he knows this does not make their suffering any easier. He understands that they are confused by the difficult conditions they face and are questioning how their trials could be within God’s will for them. It all seemed to make no sense. Hadn’t Jesus said that He came so “that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV)? Didn’t He promise fulness of joy to those who kept His commandments (John 15:11)?

The presence of suffering in the life of Christ’s followers has always caused doubt and confusion, in spite of the fact that Jesus promised it would happen.

“Here on earth you will have many trials and sorrows.” – John 16:33 NLT

Placing one’s faith in Christ is not a vaccine against suffering. It does not provide immunity from effects of living in a fallen world where the presence of sin permeates everything and impacts everyone. And Jesus was informing His disciples that following Him was going to set them at odds with the world around them.

“If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you.” – John 15:18-19 NLT

Attempting to live as lights in a sin-darkened world was not going to be easy. Exposing the deeds done in darkness was not going to win them any friends. Even Paul had warned the believers in Ephesus:

Take no part in the unfruitful works of darkness, but instead expose them. For it is shameful even to speak of the things that they do in secret. But when anything is exposed by the light, it becomes visible, for anything that becomes visible is light. – Ephesians 5:11-14 ESV

But Jesus had made it clear to His disciples that the majority of those living in darkness would prefer to remain right where they were, refusing His offer of salvation from sin and death.

…the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. – John 3:19-20 ESV

Yes, Jesus promised many trials and sorrows in this life, but He also provided His followers with the following assurance: “But take heart, because I have overcome the world” (John 16:33 NLT). And Paul is attempting to explain to the Thessalonians that the presence of suffering and persecution in their lives should not come as a surprise. As followers of Christ, they were destined to suffer just as He had. But their present suffering had an upside.

And since we are his children, we are his heirs. In fact, together with Christ we are heirs of God’s glory. But if we are to share his glory, we must also share his suffering.

Yet what we suffer now is nothing compared to the glory he will reveal to us later. – Roman 8:17-18 NLT

There was a method to God’s seeming madness. While to them, their suffering seemed nothing but painful and pointless, Paul wanted them to know that God had a purpose behind it all. There was an as-yet invisible part to God’s divine plan to which they were currently unaware. And while their trials might tempt them to question God’s goodness and justice, Paul wanted them to know that it was all part of God’s righteous and fully sovereign plan for them.

This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering – 2 Thessalonians 1:5 ESV

And rather than complaining about their lot in life, they were to trust their all-knowing, all-wise God. He knew what He was doing. There was a divine purpose to their suffering that had both short-term and long-term ramifications. Which is what led James to write:

Dear brothers and sisters, when troubles of any kind come your way, consider it an opportunity for great joy. For you know that when your faith is tested, your endurance has a chance to grow. So let it grow, for when your endurance is fully developed, you will be perfect and complete, needing nothing. – James 1:1-4 NLT

God uses our suffering to transform us. The presence of trials is meant to make us God-dependent rather than self-sufficient. That’s exactly what Peter meant when he wrote: “humble yourselves under the mighty power of God, and at the right time he will lift you up in honor. Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:6-7 NLT). Trials require trust. When we are incapable of solving our own problems, it forces us to turn to the one who holds us in the palm of His hands. And that is exactly what David suggests that we do.

Give your burdens to the LORD, and he will take care of you. He will not permit the godly to slip and fall. – Psalm 55:22 NLT

God loves His children and, oftentimes, that love shows up in the form of troubles and trials that test our faith in Him. But when, through faith, we turn our cares over to Him, we experience an increasing level of perseverance that results in the further development of our spiritual maturity. We grow stronger and even more faith-filled, needing nothing. Which is what Paul meant when he wrote:

I have learned how to be content with whatever I have. I know how to live on almost nothing or with everything. I have learned the secret of living in every situation, whether it is with a full stomach or empty, with plenty or little. For I can do everything through Christ, who gives me strength. – Ephesians 4:11-13 NLT

And another major factor behind Paul’s contentment with any and all circumstances in this life was his strong belief in God’s plans for the future. He understood that this life was not all there was. There was a life to come. For Paul, this life was a temporary environment in which he lived as an alien or stranger in an earth-bound body, but with the full assurance that there was more to come.

For we know that when this earthly tent we live in is taken down (that is, when we die and leave this earthly body), we will have a house in heaven, an eternal body made for us by God himself and not by human hands. – 2 Corinthians 5:1 1 NLT

And Paul wanted the Thessalonians to find hope and encouragement in the reality of their future glorification, but also in God’s future judgment of the wicked.

God will provide rest for you who are being persecuted and also for us when the Lord Jesus appears from heaven. He will come with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, bringing judgment on those who don’t know God and on those who refuse to obey the Good News of our Lord Jesus. – 2 Thessalonians 1:7-8 NLT

God was not blind or oblivious to what was going on the Thessalonica. He was fully aware of their suffering and knew the names of those who were responsible for it. And He had a plan in place to bring about the just and righteous judgment of those people for their acts of wickedness. And just as the future glorification of the persecuted believers in Thessalonica will be far beyond anything they could ever imagine, the future judgment of the wicked will be far worse than anyone could ever dream.

They will be punished with eternal destruction, forever separated from the Lord and from his glorious power. – 2 Thessalonians 1:9 NLT

At His second coming, Jesus will right all wrongs and restore order and justice to the world. He will punish the wicked, but He “will receive glory from his holy people—praise from all who believe” (2 Thessalonians 1:10 NLT). And Paul includes the Thessalonians in that group. Yes, they might suffer in this life, but in the life to come they will enjoy an eternity with God the Son and God the Father, free from the effects of sin and completely separated from any form of suffering, sorrow, or shame.

The apostle John was given a vision of this future reality, which he penned in his Revelation. 

I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.”

And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” – Revelation 21:3-5 NLT

And with that amazing image in mind, Paul tells the Thessalonian believers, “To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power” (2 Thessalonians 1:11 NLT). Paul was asking God to show up in the midst of their suffering, providing them with the power they needed to live up to their calling as His children. And when they endured suffering well and walked worthy of their calling, the name of Jesus would be glorified because it would be evidence of God’s saving work in their lives.

Living the godly life was never intended to be easy. Jesus didn’t die so that we might live our best life now, but that we might one day experience eternal life in all its glory. But in the meantime, God has provided us with everything we need for living in obedience to His will and for displaying His divine nature through our lives.

By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvelous glory and excellence. And because of his glory and excellence, he has given us great and precious promises. These are the promises that enable you to share his divine nature and escape the world’s corruption caused by human desires. – 2 Peter 1:3-4 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Faith in the Face of Affliction

1 Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith, that no one be moved by these afflictions. For you yourselves know that we are destined for this. For when we were with you, we kept telling you beforehand that we were to suffer affliction, just as it has come to pass, and just as you know. For this reason, when I could bear it no longer, I sent to learn about your faith, for fear that somehow the tempter had tempted you and our labor would be in vain. 1 Thessalonians 3:1-5 ESV

We know from Luke’s account of Paul’s second missionary journey, recorded in the book of Acts, that Paul and Silas had been forced to flee Thessalonica because of threats against their lives. They left under the cover of night and made their way to Berea. Their initial reception in Berea was positive and Luke records that the Jews there “received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11 ESV). But before long, the Jews in Thessalonica got word that Paul and Silas were in Berea and sent men to stir up the local Jews against them. Once again, Paul was forced to leave, but he asked Silas and Timothy to remain behind in Berea (Acts 17:14). Paul then made his way to Athens by boat. Once there, he immediately went to work sharing the gospel, even preaching in the Areopagus, an outdoor arena located on a small hill northwest of the city of Athens. The term,  Areopagus referred to the place and the council of rulers who met there to debate and discuss important topics. Paul addressed this learned group, using the local shrine to the “unknown god” to discuss with them the truth regarding Jesus Christ. And all went well until he mentioned Jesus being raised from the dead.

Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, “We will hear you again about this.” So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them. – Acts 17:31-33 ESV

In spite of the negative response of the council, there were those who heard Paul’s message and believed.

In his letter to the Thessalonian believers, Paul picks up the recounting of his travel itinerary right at this point.

Therefore when we could bear it no longer, we were willing to be left behind at Athens alone, and we sent Timothy, our brother and God’s coworker in the gospel of Christ, to establish and exhort you in your faith… – 1 Thessalonians 3:1-2 ESV

Paul had left Silas and Timothy back in Berea, but a further decision had been made to have Timothy return to Thessalonica to continue the work of building up the local congregation there. In a series of letters he had written to Timothy, Paul provided his young friend and ministry partner with some specific instructions regarding his work among these fledgling congregations.

Don’t let anyone think less of you because you are young. Be an example to all believers in what you say, in the way you live, in your love, your faith, and your purity. Until I get there, focus on reading the Scriptures to the church, encouraging the believers, and teaching them. – 1 Timothy 4:12-13 NLT

Preach the word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching. – 2 Timothy 4:2 NLT

Paul reminds the Thessalonian believers that Timothy had been sent to encourage and instruct them, but also to strengthen their faith as they wrestled with the persecution they were facing.

We sent him to strengthen you, to encourage you in your faith, and to keep you from being shaken by the troubles you were going through. – 1 Thessalonians 3:2-3 NLT

If you recall, a year earlier, when Paul and Silas had been in Thessalonica, a mob attacked the home of Jason, one of the members of the local congregation. He and a few other Christians had been dragged before the city council where they had been falsely accused of insurrection against the Roman government.

“They are all guilty of treason against Caesar, for they profess allegiance to another king, named Jesus.” – Acts 17:7 NLT

Jason and his companions were forced to post bond and released, but the pressure on this small congregation did not let up. The Jews living in Thessalonica saw them as a threat and continued to stir up trouble for them. The Gospel was having an impact, resulting in the conversions of some of the members of the local synagogue. And this resulted in a spirit of jealousy and resentment among the Jews. And the city council, answerable to the Roman government, was not about to tolerate anyone or anything that caused a spirit of dissent or discord in their community. So, this small congregation of Christ-followers was under increasing pressure and growing persecution.

But Paul reminds them:

…you know that we are destined for such troubles. Even while we were with you, we warned you that troubles would soon come—and they did, as you well know. – 1 Thessalonians 4:3-4 NLT

He had warned them that trouble would come, and it had shown up as promised. Evidently, this had been the motivation behind Paul’s decision to send Timothy back to Thessalonica. He was concerned that the pressure being placed upon the believers there would cause them to consider reneging on their commitment to Christ.

Paul had a strong commitment to the spiritual well-being of the local church and, knowing that persecution was to be expected, he had sent Timothy to provide godly leadership in the face of opposition. And he had already provided Timothy with ample instructions regarding his role as an elder/shepherd of the people of God.

I am writing these things to you now, even though I hope to be with you soon, so that if I am delayed, you will know how people must conduct themselves in the household of God. This is the church of the living God, which is the pillar and foundation of the truth. – 1 Timothy 3:14-15 NLT

The church was to be the pillar and foundation of the truth. The local congregation in Thessalonica was meant to conduct itself in keeping with the truth of the Gospel, exhibiting its life-transforming power even in the face of persecution. Paul was well aware of the fact that Satan would do everything in his power to discourage and demoralize the young believers in Thessalonica. In fact, he confessed to them his fear that they would give in to the enemy’s attacks on their faith.

I was afraid that the tempter had gotten the best of you and that our work had been useless. – 1 Thessalonians 3:5 NLT

Paul had expressed similar concerns to the believers in Ephesus and had provided them with insights into the nature of the spiritual battle in which they were engaged.

Be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on all of God’s armor so that you will be able to stand firm against all strategies of the devil. For we are not fighting against flesh-and-blood enemies, but against evil rulers and authorities of the unseen world, against mighty powers in this dark world, and against evil spirits in the heavenly places. – Ephesians 6:10-12 NLT

Faith in Christ had resulted in salvation for the believers in Thessalonica. But it had also resulted in persecution. Their commitment to Christ had placed a bullseye on their backs and made them tempting targets for the enemy. And Paul knew that the constant presence of trials and tribulations would cause some to lose faith. Their strength to stand firm in the face of opposition would grow weak and the temptation to return to their old way of life would be great.

Paul had warned Timothy that this would happen, so he had encouraged him to “fight the good fight, holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and thereby shipwrecked their faith” (1 Timothy 1:18-19 BSB).

The local church is meant to be the pillar and foundation of the truth. It is within the local fellowship that the miracle of the Gospel shows up in transformed lives and a loving community of Christ-centered people who love God and each other. But for that local church to be impactful, it will require individual believers who remain committed to the cause of Christ regardless of any persecutions or problems they may face.

Paul knew that the Thessalonian believers were suffering, but he also knew that they could survive and thrive. His answer to their problem of persecution was simple. It was the very same thing he had told the believers in Corinth.

Be on guard. Stand firm in the faith. Be courageous. Be strong. And do everything with love. – 1 Corinthians 16:13 NLT

And God had not left them ill-equipped or on their own. He had provided them with ample resources to fight the good fight of faith.

Therefore, put on every piece of God’s armor so you will be able to resist the enemy in the time of evil. Then after the battle you will still be standing firm. Stand your ground, putting on the belt of truth and the body armor of God’s righteousness. For shoes, put on the peace that comes from the Good News so that you will be fully prepared. In addition to all of these, hold up the shield of faith to stop the fiery arrows of the devil. Put on salvation as your helmet, and take the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. – Ephesians 6:13-17 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson