As we look toward Easter and the celebration of our Lord’s victory over sin and death and the defeat of the father of lies, the world is a mess. In Ukraine, thousands are dying of starvation and a brutality that justifies our belief in sin and Satan. Violence is rampant around the world and here in the United States. As I write, there has been a mass shooting in the subway in New York City. In addition, the Word of God is being trampled underfoot outside and inside the church. As believers in Christ Jesus and as local churches, how are we to respond to the turmoil descending upon us?
During the last week of Jesus’ time on earth, the disciples were faced with the immediate threat to them following Jesus’ death on the cross. Luke, in his gospel account, provides a particularly poignant record of the conversation in the upper room and on the journey to the Mount of Olives. In it, he provides a clue as to how we are to respond today.
Recalling that Luke was a Gentiles writing to Theophilus, a Gentiles government official, what Luke writes is very significant and applicable to our present circumstances. He writes from the perspective of the “times of the gentiles.”[i] While the times of the gentiles began with the destruction of Solomon’s temple, Luke’s purpose is to narrate the events of the next few days to the crucifixion and beyond until the Lord returns for His church. The picture is that of a world that would be turned upside down for the believers Jesus was leaving behind and those who would follow Him during the church age. In Luke chapter 20 and 21, Luke carefully traces what he heard from those who were present during these events and capsulates the answer to this dilemma for Theophilus and us.
In chapter 20, Luke records a conversation Jesus had with His disciples while teaching in the temple.[ii] He had already been challenged by the leaders of the Jews as to His authority. Using a common metaphor of the vineyard, Jesus describes how He would be rejected by those whom He came to lead. When the disciples expressed dismay, He drove the point home so forcefully that the Jewish leaders sought ways to destroy Him. They sent spies to trick Him. But Jesus answered in ways that eventually turned them away and they gave up trying to trap Him.
During this time, many in the crowd were pointing to the temple, its grandeur and opulence both in construction and accoutrements. Many were praising its glory while others were cursing its very existence. This was the temple of Herod the Great, the client king of Judea representing the hated Romans. While opulent in construction and wealthy in its income, it was a bastardized expression of God’s glory to most who longed for the promised Messiah. In solemn rebuke, Jesus stated that this monstrosity would soon be destroyed.
To the question regarding when this would happen, Jesus explained in greater detail in chapter 21 the coming events. It would be when “the times of the Gentiles” were completed.[iii] It would be when the Son of Man would return for His followers.[iv] No time frame is given, only that there would be turmoil on the earth during this time. But the encouraging thought is that the kingdom of God would be near in spite of the pain and suffering many would endure.
Chapter 22 opens with preparations for observing the Passover. It would not have been unusual except for the threat on His life. Those around Him were now at greater risk themselves. Tensions were high. Luke carefully recounts the order of events and the discussions taking place. During the supper the Lord symbolically indicates how He was to die and that the betrayer was among them. This initiated an interesting dialogue.
First was their curiosity as to who this betrayer might be. Second was the argument as to who was the greatest among them. This amazing juxtaposition leads to Jesus’ instruction regarding leadership in this new dispensation of God’s redemptive program. It would be servant leadership.
Finally, Jesus tells them that they, minus the betrayer, would all sit on thrones to judge Israel, but with one caveat. Before this, there would be a time that would test men’s souls. This is illustrated when Jesus turns to Peter and, addressing him twice by his birth name, tells him he would be sifted like wheat. Of course Peter, this strong-willed fisherman, denied that he could be sifted and missed the point. Jesus told him He was praying for him and that one day he would be able to strength his brothers. Before chapter 22 ends, Luke recounts some of Peter’s denials.
Following this dialogue with Peter and before leaving the upper room, Jesus gives some important instructions:
And He said to them, "When I sent you out without purse and bag and sandals, you did not lack anything, did you?" And they said, "No, nothing." And He said to them, "But now, let him who has a purse take it along, likewise also a bag, and let him who has no sword sell his robe and buy one. "For I tell you, that this which is written must be fulfilled in Me, 'And He was numbered with transgressors'; for that which refers to Me has its fulfillment."[v]
Jesus’ question, their answer, and His response highlights the change that was coming. The first time Jesus commissioned them and sent them out, there was no risk to them. But now there would be great risk. Instead of their message being rejected, they were now going to be rejected because of the new message they were going to be proclaiming. They were going to be labeled transgressors. There would be the need for them to defend themselves. They would want a sword for defense instead of a robe for comfort.
This has been emblematic of circumstances surrounding the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ ever since. From its inception in Acts to the present, the church around the world has had to support itself and defend itself from the hatred of the world, the world that put Jesus on that cruel instrument of death. All the disciples save one were martyred. Throughout the history of the church, even those claiming to be defenders of the faith persecuted anyone who deigned to buck the trends and preach the unadulterated Word of God.
In a simple way, without fanfare, Jesus laid out for us how we are to respond to circumstances in our day. First, we need to stop expecting the world to support us by giving them what they want to hear in song and dance. The church should not be in the entertainment business. Second, we need to be ready to give an answer to those who ask, without apology, compromise, or fear. Third, we need to know how to defend our faith, not because the world will listen if we make it more palatable. They will not. They do not have eyes to see nor ears to hear. Finally, we need to use the spiritual gifts God has given us to build one another up in The Faith and to meet one another’s needs in Christian love.
And sometimes we will need to bar the door and erect defenses to protect ourselves. As current events are teaching us in Ukraine, the world will always be confused as to what is a defensive and what is an offensive posture. But we have the mind of Christ. We have the Holy Spirit. And we have the Word of God to guide us. Finely, we have the local church, when properly organized and functioning as a mature man,[vi] to be our strong defense against the onslaught of ignorance and despair.
In Luke 22:38, Luke records the disciples’ almost childlike response to what Jesus had just said, “Lord, look, here are two swords.” To which Jesus answered, “It is enough.” In retrospect, how simple their response seems. In one short phrase, Jesus indicated that this is not our war to fight. It is bigger than us. A few hours later, Peter, banishing his sword, missed the man’s head and cut off his ear,[vii] indicating how little they understood.
But now we see much clearer. This is a battle between forces in heavenly places. This is why Paul in the first epistle he wrote, the book of Galatians, indicated how we are to conduct ourselves now that the Old Testament Law no longer governs the way followers of Christ live. We are to walk individually[viii] and corporately[ix] in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Later in his ministry, Paul spelled this out in more detail. The war being waged is not a wrestling match between two individuals[x], but open warfare “against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.”[xi]
Some are called to go off to distant lands to fight the battle. But for all of us, at home or aboard, our purpose is not to win the war. Satan and death are already defeated. We are already seated with Christ in heavenly places. Ours commission is to stand firm for the gospel. To stand firm in our faith. And to stand with one another in unity and the power of the gospel. This can only be accomplished when the church is “a mature man”[xii] in Christ Jesus.
From the upper room Jesus and His disciples journeyed to the Mount of Olives. The first words Luke records are from Jesus. Notice the coordinating conjunctions:
And He came out and proceeded as was His custom to the Mount of Olives; and the disciples also followed Him. And when He arrived at the place, He said to them, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation."[xiii]
Was there conversation along the way? Probably. But Luke is presenting for Theophilus and us, a narrative that provides a transition, not just from the temple to the Mount of Olives, but from the old order to a new order. In Luke’s narrative, there is no break in the subject matter. Jesus is still preparing His disciples and the church for what will come. His first instruction in verse 40 needs some explanation. The text reads, "Pray that you may not enter into temptation."
The NASB, along with many commentators, only see this as forward looking and having little to do with the preceding context. However, a closer look indicates that this is a continuation of what has preceded in the narrative. The term pray refers to general prayer. The term translated temptation can also refer to trials and need not be limited to temptation to sin. The prepositional phrase, “in temptation,” does not emphasize future or even iterative temptation to sin, but rather contemporaneous action as indicated by the Aorist Active Infinitive. A paraphrase might be, “pray praying not to enter.” In other words, the turmoil believers would face from then on until He returns should be bathed in prayer. The Present Imperative is to constantly be in prayer. In our prayers, it is alright to pray that God will keep us from trials and sin.
This is a continuation of what He just said in the upper room regarding needing to support and defend oneself in the future following His death, burial, and resurrection. Of course there would be increased temptation to sin while defending ourselves. But we must not ignore the obvious implications of the context. The reference is to trials that will come due to new circumstances that would befall the disciples and future followers. Jesus is referring to the defensive posture the church must take and the need to bathe whatever is done with prayer.
This is exactly what Paul later underscores when he writes:
Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints...[xiv]
This is how the church must respond to circumstances in our world today. We must be a mature body of believers standing together for the purpose of prayer and in defense of our faith in our Lord Jesus Christ.
[i] Lk 21:24.
[ii] Cf. Lk 20:1ff.
[iii] Lk 21:24.
[iv] Lk 21:27.
[v] Lk 22:35-37.
[vi] Eph 4:13.
[vii] Lk 22:50; cf. Jn 18:10.
[viii] Gal 5:16.
[ix] Gal 5:25.
[x] Eph 6:12a.
[xi] Eph 6:12b.
[xii] Eph 4:13.
[xiii] Lk 22:39-40.
[xiv] Eph 6:13-18.