We are in a section of Luke’s Gospel devoted to the Lord’s teaching and among the various pieces of that teaching are several that have cast our attention forward to either the end of life or the end of history. We have called this “living sub specie aeternitatis, or living in view of eternity.” The Christian life is to be a life lived for the future, in view of the future, and in keeping with the reality of the future as it has been revealed to us in the Word of God. In other words, heaven and hell are always to be in our mind’s eye and we are never to live as if every person were not rushing to one or the other and, as Christians, we are never to live without a living sense of our soon entrance into a life more wonderful than we can conceive. Christ’s gifts to those who believe in him are many and extraordinary, but the greatest of them surely is the prospect of human life come fully into its own, all of its powers utilized in the most happy and satisfying way, basking in the presence of God and in the experience of perfect love and joy. No one can be expecting that and waiting for that and getting ready for that and live the same way as someone who is not!
In this next paragraph Jesus follows up his teaching about laying up treasure in heaven with the exhortation to be ready for his second coming.
v.35 “Dressed for action” is the famous “gird up your loins.” But as most of you rarely gird up your loins any more, the ESV renders the terms with a modern equivalent. In those days the long garments that people wore were a fatal hindrance to activity. Lift them up and tuck them under your belt so you can be free to move. That’s the idea.
v.36 We get a more elaborate version of this analogy in the parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25.
v.37 This master will be so pleased by the fact that his servants were Johnny on the spot that he will reward them by switching roles with them, he the servant and they being waited on. In 22:27 the Lord explicitly says that he has assumed the role of the servant of his people. Such are the reversals of the gospel: God becoming our servant, the Lord Christ washing our feet. The reward of God’s people is never commonplace; it is always surprising and spectacular! [Morris, 235]
v.40 Faithful service is here defined as a readiness for the master’s return whenever he may return.
v.41 The Lord didn’t answer Peter’s question directly. He often answered a question with another question and by so doing taught someone not what he wanted to know but what he needed to know. What we need to know is that we are servants with responsibilities.
v.42 The greater the privilege, the greater the responsibility. Such a servant had been given great responsibility and had been entrusted with considerable freedom of action. Well so it is for us. If Christ’s coming will be the happiest and most satisfying moment of our existence and the beginning of endless joy, then we should live in perpetual readiness for the day.
v.47 As so often in the Bible we are given a variety of reasons to do what is right. Here we are both promised a reward if we should be found faithful — “he will set him over all his possessions” — and threatened with punishment: “he will receive a severe beating.”
v.48 These last few verses are a fabulously important piece of the biblical doctrine of eternal punishment and hell. They are the end of all the caricatures of hell — whether in Gary Larson’s The Far Side or in unfortunate Christian preaching — in which there is no discrimination between sinners, as if the young and the old, the more virtuous unbeliever and the heartless tyrant all receive the same punishment. Hell is divine judgment and as such it is perfect judgment. Each one will receive precisely what he deserves, nothing more, nothing less. Some will get a lighter beating and some a more severe one. Whatever that means precisely, and who can say, we must never forget that our Savior — who taught us more about hell than any other biblical teacher — it wasn’t even really necessary in the context, made a point of teaching us that there was to be such a discrimination among the damned.
What that final statement means, surely, is that the worst sinners will always be found not in a prison but in a church. Or as William Tyndale once put it, “Antichrist will ever be the best Christian man.” [Works, iii, 107]
In any case, the larger point in the Lord’s teaching is that what was lacking in the mind-set of the Pharisees and the Jews in general was precisely this expectation of the coming of the Lord. Their whole understanding of life and religion was routine. It did not rest on the prospect of the interruption of history by the coming of the Lord. [Green, 500] A great deal of what has passed for Christianity ever since is like it in the same respect, it’s simply routine.
This is not the first instance in the Gospel of Luke of some reference to the Second Coming and the end of the age, but it is the clearest and most comprehensive so far. As you might expect, there are scholars of the more skeptical bent who argue that Jesus couldn’t have been talking about the Second Coming during his ministry because his disciples would have had no idea what he was talking about. They hadn’t yet grasped the first coming; they certainly at this point had no conception of a second; they had no notion that there would need to be a Second Coming or how that Second Coming might fit into the divine plan for world history and the establishment of the Kingdom of God. But the fact is during his ministry the Lord taught his disciples about many things they would not understand until later: his crucifixion and resurrection; his ascension to heaven, Pentecost and the descent of the Holy Spirit, the worldwide gospel mission of the church, and so on. He spent his time preparing them for their life’s work when they had virtually no clue what he meant. It would all become clear only later. So, in the same way, he taught them that, contrary to their expectation, the Messiah would come not once, but twice — once in humiliation to suffer and die for his people’s sins and once in triumph to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him — and that the consummation of the kingdom would not occur until his Second Coming.
As the Lord approached the end of his ministry, it was natural that what would happen afterward occupied his attention more and more. His disciples needed to be prepared to understand how the kingdom would come and what their role would be in its coming. From our vantage point, with the entire New Testament behind us, we understand all of this much better than the disciples did when they first heard about all of this.
It is very easy for us to see how vital to our Christian faith is the hope of the Second Coming, how all of the promises of the Gospel depend upon it for their fulfillment, and how the prospect of it utterly transforms a believer’s perspective on life. But the fact is, grand a prospect, life-changing an expectation as the Second Coming is, virtually no one in our culture ever gives it a thought, in part because Christians don’t think or speak much about it themselves, not nearly enough. You don’t hear our politicians — even the professing Christian ones — weighing alternatives in light of the Second Coming, you don’t here psychologists or psychiatrists recommending that our behavior be consistent with the reality of the coming eucatastrophe — J.R.R. Tolkien’s recondite term to the describe the Second Coming, “the happy catastrophe” — the shuddering end of history and the culmination of believers’ dreams and unbelievers’ nightmares.
And the obvious reason why even we Christians have trouble keeping the Second Coming in the forefront of our minds is because it has been so long in coming. We are now as far removed from the Lord’s promise of his return as Abraham was from the Lord’s first coming: two thousand years in each case.
In the days and few years following Pentecost it was natural for believers to suppose that the Lord would return in their lifetime, in a matter of months or a few years at the most. After all, he had told them on several occasions that he was “coming quickly” and that the day of their salvation was drawing near. In fact, it is very likely that this was the view of the Apostle Paul, at least earlier in his ministry. He seems to say in 1 Thess. 4:15, in one his earliest letters, that he expected to be alive when the Lord returned. If you remember, in that letter Paul had to deal with problems created by the belief of many in that church that Jesus was to return momentarily. Why bother with the ordinary responsibilities of life if the world is going to end in a few months or in a year or two. It seems to have been a widespread assumption and Paul himself may have shared it. The apostles, after all, were not omniscient. They were guilty of errors of judgment just as everybody else. Only when writing Holy Scripture under the control of the Holy Spirit were they infallible. Later in his ministry Paul seems to have realized that the Lord was not going to return before his death. He realized that he would go to the Lord before the Lord came back to the world.
But here we are two-thousand years later and still he has not returned. Through the generations God’s people have longed for his appearing, have thought it might be near, but they have been disappointed in their hope100% of the time! I grew up hearing about the signs of the Lord’s soon return. This was happening in Russia, that was occurring in Israel; the Common Market, the predecessor of the European Union, was taken to be a revival of the Roman empire, the Babylon of the Book of Revelation. These ideas occupied our attention. We were waiting for ten nations and when the tenth was added to the Common Market we were told the end was at hand.
Predictions were made with great confidence. But none of them came true. A professor of mine had to eat crow after publicly suggesting that a certain Soviet politician was the antichrist. Hal Lindsey made a huge splash with his book The Late Great Planet Earth, first published in 1970 and into its 17th printing by 1972, the year my copy was printed. The book contained a host of predictions that now seem quaint; they certainly do not make the contemporary reader think, “My goodness, everything has happened just as he said it would.” [I remember a prominent evangelical minister saying that it seemed to him that 1984 was going to be a very big year in biblical prophecy.] It’s now almost thirty years later. And so it has been throughout the last 2,000 years. Expectations have been disappointed without fail.
Recently there have been signs about town — I saw several along Ruston way — advertising a prophecy conference to be held in Tacoma. Emblazoned on the sign was the question: “Is 2012 the end?” Well, very likely not. You don’t really think the Lord is returning this year, do you? Virtually no one does, including the sort of Christians who are most likely to trumpet the news that this political development or that is a sign that Christ may be coming very soon. They still buy life insurance; they still acquire thirty year mortgages, they still go about their business as if tomorrow will come and the day after that and the day after that.
The Apostle Peter, the Lord’s conversation partner here in Luke 12, would later warn us that a delay in the Lord’s return would prove a temptation both to us and to the world. No wonder he, of all people, would be sensitive to that fact, the Lord having spoken to him so directly about it. In Second Peter 2:3:3-4 he wrote,
“…in the last days scoffers will come, scoffing and following their own evil desires. They will say, ‘Where is this coming he promised. Ever since our fathers died everything goes on as it has since the beginning of creation.”
Much of New Testament scholarship of the skeptical sort has long been ruled by this very skepticism. These scholars suppose that Jesus, if he said anything at all about his coming again, said it would be very soon after his death. But it turned out that he was mistaken. The church had to clean up this embarrassing mistake by its founder by inventing teaching and placing it in Jesus’ mouth in the Gospels to the effect that the Lord had actually said that he would be a long time coming. Well, if Luke 12:35-48 is that sort of correction after-the-fact, it is a very poor job of it. More about that later.
But far more important, we Christians ourselves can struggle to heed our Lord here, to keep watch, to be ready when so many years have passed and Jesus has not returned. So what are we to do with the fact that the Second Coming has still not occurred these two thousand years later? How are we to watch and be ready?
Well much of the confusion results from a misunderstanding of what the Lord is here telling us to do. We often think that he meant that to watch for his coming means that we must somehow believe or expect that he might come at any minute and that we must maintain that sense of nervous expectation at all times, no matter the long reach of the years that have passed without his return. But that isn’t what the Lord meant. As a matter of fact all the teaching about the Second Coming in the New Testament has the same character. And in this first major statement about his Second Coming by the Lord himself we find an entirely typical presentation. Or, put it this way: here we find all three of the emphases we will regularly find in the New Testament’s teaching about the Second Coming.
- The first emphasis is that which has come to be called imminence.
Something is imminent if it is impending, coming directly or soon. That is the idea of the Lord’s opening remark in v. 35: “Stay dressed for action and keep your lamps burning.” Be ready, in other words, for the Master may return at any moment and your work must be done before he arrives. This same note is sounded repeatedly in the Lord’s teaching and in that of the New Testament as a whole.
“In just a very little while, ‘He who is coming will come, and will not delay…” [Heb. 10:37]
“The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.” [Rom. 13:11]
“You too be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.” [James 5:8]
And near the very end of the Bible we have this:
“Behold, I am coming soon…” [Rev. 22:12]
That is the first note the NT sounds about the Second Coming of Jesus Christ: it is imminent. The 1662 Anglican Book of Common Prayer included a chart that enabled the reader to find the date of Easter Sunday for more than five hundred years, up to the year 2199 in fact. The American Episcopal edition of the Book of Common Prayer enabled its readers to calculate Easter as far ahead as the year 8500! That was not perhaps the best way to engender the expectation of the Lord’s imminent return! [Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 167-168] But what does “I am coming soon” mean after two thousand years have come and gone?
- The second emphasis in the Bible’s teaching about when the Lord would come again is that of delay.
In this little parable the Lord told and others like it, it is precisely the fact that the Master did not come back immediately, that his return was delayed, that created the tension, the temptation to ignore one’s duties, and the need to remain watchful. In v. 38 here we read that the Master might not return until very late at night, the second or third watch. Only perpetual vigilance will do because otherwise no one will be alert and ready in the wee hours of the morning. The same point is made again in v. 45 where we read that the servant changed his behavior precisely because his Master took so long to return.
In the Lord’s parable of the wise and foolish virgins in Matthew 25 we read that “As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and fell asleep.”
In 2 Thessalonians, precisely to disabuse those Christians who imagined that Christ would return at any moment — literally today, tomorrow or the next day — Paul reminded them that there were things in world history that had to happen first, including the appearance of the Antichrist or “the man of lawlessness” as Paul calls him. In his Olivette Discourse, delivered during the Passion Week, the Lord himself foretold great opposition that his church would have to face and he said that the end would not come until the gospel has been taken to the four corners of the earth.
And in 2 Peter 3, to which we already made reference, Peter reminded his readers that what are many years to us is but a day to the eternal God and that we should not expect that a God of love and patience as we know God to be would execute his judgment until all are saved who will be saved.
Other texts could be cited to the same effect. We are waiting for certain things to be accomplished in the world and the Lord will not come until they have been. Hence the delay. Whatever “soon” means, therefore, in the Lord’s statement that he was coming soon, it doesn’t mean in a few months or a few years. Rather, it seems to mean “directly.” It is the next great thing to happen in the history of the world and when it comes all the time that has separated his first coming from his second is going to seem like a moment. Clearly the Lord prepared his church to wait for his return and obviously for a Christian to be properly watchful does not mean that he has to expect the Lord’s return today or tomorrow. The servants here did not necessarily think that. But they kept busy at their tasks because they knew their Master would return and would expect that when he returned his servants had done what he told them to do.
- The third emphasis in the Lord’s teaching about his Second Coming is that of uncertainty.
The Lord’s return is imminent but will not occur until after some unspecified delay. But, what is more, no one knows when the Lord will appear. This too is said repeatedly by both the Lord and his apostles. The Lord makes a point of this uncertainty throughout our text; indeed, it seems to be his main point. It is the point of v. 39 and of the verses that went before it. Precisely because you do not know when, you must remain ready, watchful. He says the same thing more forcefully in v. 46. The Master will come on a day when you are not expecting him and at an hour you are not aware of.
That point is often made. In Matt. 24:42 we hear the Lord telling his disciples, “Keep watch, because you do not know on what day the Lord will come.” He concluded the parable of the wise and foolish virgins with the same thought. “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” If you remember, Jesus himself admitted that, as a man, he did not know the hour of his return. If he didn’t know it, it is a sure bet you and I don’t know it either.
Well, take these three emphases together. The Lord’s return is impending, we must therefore be ready for it. It will come after a delay of some unspecified duration, therefore we must not grow lax or forget the Lord’s return. And, as to the time itself, no one can know it, and therefore we cannot relax for a time intending to get ready later, we must be constantly watchful. Those who live without the prospect of the Second Coming inevitably live their lives as if Christ were not coming again and those who live that way will not find his approval when he returns, whenever he returns.
We can summarize the Lord’s teaching then this way. We are here exhorted to “watch” by which is meant to be aware of and waiting for the Lord’s return and to live in the expectation of it. It does not mean that we spend our days and nights peering up at the heavens; it means that we remain faithful to the calling of men and women whose whole lives are shaped by the promise of the Lord’s return. Is that not what the Lord himself says in summary in v. 47?
“…that servant who knew his master’s will but did not get ready or act according to his will will receive a severe beating.”
That’s what readiness and watchfulness is. It’s living your life according to his will so that whenever he comes you are ready to receive him. The watchful servant is the faithful servant, the obedient servant. If the Lord is not coming again you can live as you please. But if he is coming again — and he is — then you must live in loyal and loving obedience to him, for whether sooner or later the issue will turn on precisely that question: Have you been his faithful servant through the years of your life? Remember old Simeon, who saw the Lord Jesus as a baby in the temple? It was said of him that he was “righteous and devout and was waiting for the consolation of Israel.” Well, that is what we are all to be! And those characteristics are closely related to one another. One will be righteous and devout who is waiting for the consolation of Israel. Waiting or watching for the Second Coming is what produces Christian devotion and righteousness of life. A man or woman who lives in light of the Second Coming of Jesus Christ will and must live very differently. He will care that he is serving the Lord faithfully; she will live her life in view of the fact that everything in this world takes its meaning and gains its significance entirely in terms of the Last Judgment which occurs at the Lord’s appearing. Nothing is good that Christ is not going to judge to have been good on the Last Day; nothing is bad that Christ will approve when he comes again. How differently the world will think about everything when the Lord Christ suddenly appears in the heavens!
Think of it this way. The cross, the death, and the resurrection of our Lord lie behind us now some two thousand years. But every day in many ways the fact of that magnificent history bears down on us in wonderfully holy and useful ways. The Lord Jesus on the cross for us and our salvation, his coming triumphant from the tomb, his ascension to the Right Hand, all of that encourages us, inspires and nerves us, it comforts and consoles us, it instructs us, it corrects us, and it summons us to obedience, love, and the joy of salvation. We live out of those events long ago.
Well, why should it be different in respect to an event yet to come, an event that perhaps remains in the far distant future? Because it is an event that will certainly occur at some future date, it can wield a similar influence backwards as the cross and resurrection wield it forwards. Christ dying and rising again rightly exercises a powerful influence upon our lives today. Christ returning should and can do the same.
The fact that Jesus will come again and when he comes will judge the living and the dead defines the meaning of absolutely everything in our lives. It is to that obvious fact that the Lord is here drawing our attention and he is exhorting us to a commonsensical acceptance of the obvious.
One of the most influential Christians of the 19th century was Anthony Ashley Cooper, the Seventh Earl of Shaftesbury. The social reforms he was responsible for enacting changed the face of British social life and improved the life of the poor in profound ways. The Times acknowledged him after his death as the man who “changed the whole social condition of England.” His great work was, by his own admission, an extension of his Christian faith. But it was in particular an extension of his expectation of the Lord’s return. Toward the end of his life he said,
“I do not think that in the last forty years I have lived one conscious hour that was not influenced by the thought of our Lord’s return.” [In Stott, The Incomparable Christ, 168-170]
It is our calling to be as much like that man as we possibly can. As we keep the coming of the Lord before us it will be our privilege to watch that great event, yet future as it is, reach back to change our lives for the better and to watch ourselves grow in usefulness to God and man.