Safe Passage: Luke 17.20-37; 1 Thess 5.2-11

Tough week in the news, don’t you think?

Political instability, an invasion in Turkey and Syria, unrest in Hong Kong. The financial markets don’t like this much, either.

Who’s going to fix this? Who will make all wrongs right? What’s going to happen in the end? How will we find safe passage through turmoil? And, with increasing bias in the media, how do we even find out what’s true?

These are paralyzing questions for those who don’t believe the gospel, because politics seem like the last, best option to those without Christ. They’re pressing questions for those of us who do believe in the perfect life, death and resurrection of Jesus, because we’re always tempted to forget Jesus and join in the hysterics.

Luke 17.20-37 is puzzling to read and hard to teach. Jesus is traveling to the cross and identifying true followers as He goes. And, in chapters 17-18 in particular, He’s preparing these true followers for the time between His two comings. Among the other characteristics they’ll demonstrate, these true followers will press toward the fulness of the Kingdom of God.

The Kingdom has come in Jesus (:20-21). When is the Kingdom coming? Jesus’ opponents wanted to know. In other words, When will we finally see God’s reign and rule? When will all wrongs be made right?

Jesus answers in two parts. First, He tells them that His Kingdom does (present tense) not come with a lot of fanfare. In fact, you could miss it. (Kinda like the nine former-lepers missed Jesus in the passage just before this one, 19.11-19). Second, ” … the Kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (:21). In other words, I’m right here! You’re looking at the very presence of the Kingdom, because the Kingdom of God is always present with the King.

This “NOWness” of the Kingdom is a big deal! And, at different places in His gospel, Luke describes just what takes place, because Jesus is on the scene: the power of Satan is broken (10.18); evil is dealt a fatal blow (11.20); the New Covenant is cut (22.19); the Spirit (soon) will come (24.49). And, throughout, forgiveness of sins is offered, based on Jesus’ gospel cross-work.

All this is true, because Jesus is on the scene. But, for the unbelieving Pharisees, Jesus is curt and cryptic. After this, though, He turns to His disciples in the remainder of the passage. And, for those who believe, He gives more …

The fulness of the Kingdom will come in Jesus (:22-37). Not everything in God’s plan of redemption was accomplished at Christ’s first coming. There’s also a NOT YET part of the Kingdom. These works of God, tied up in Jesus’ second coming, include the complete removal of sin, Jesus’ obvious reign and rule, the restoration of all things, and resurrection from the dead for everybody. And, they include the execution of God’s justice, judgment, and the separation of the righteous and the unrighteous.

In other words, all wrongs will be made right. But, what of Jesus’ followers? In contrast to Luke’s strong emphasis on the “NOWness” of Jesus’ reign and rule that we read about in his gospel, the remainder of this passage provides color and detail about what will happen when Jesus returns. Four questions structure the passage:

  1. When will the fulness of the Kingdom come? (:22-25) Jesus’ basic answer is that He can return at any point after He goes to the cross. (Christ’s return in their own lifetime has been the hope of every generation of believers ever since.) In the meantime, believers (that’s us!) shouldn’t get confused. We’re not to get worked up over blood moons and cryptic readings from ancient Jewish calendars. We’re not to follow rumors from those who think they’ve found Jesus in remote places (See Matt 24.23a … 26). When Jesus comes, His return will be as obvious as lighting: For as the lighting flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day (:24).
  2. How will the Kingdom come in fulness (:26-30). Jesus’ answer is that the Kingdom will come in fulness suddenly, when people are thinking about other things. He then gives two historical examples of how this will be. The first involved Noah (Gen 9). People were having a great time while Noah built his ark, in obedience to God. And, when God’s judgment came, God provided safe passage on the ark through His own judgment. The second example is Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 19). Once again, people were doing their thing, until God judged these cities, and provided safe passage for Lot. (His wife chose not to follow and became part of the landscape). In the same way, Jesus’ return will catch the upright off guard.
  3. What should you do when the fulness of the Kingdom comes? (:31-36). Jesus answer: don’t prepare … It’s too late for that. Don’t try to rescue your stuff. Don’t try to find some solution apart from Jesus. As Darrell Bock says in his commentary, “If one is not already prepared for the day, there will be no time to prepare. There will be time only to flee.” Two will be in one bed. Two will be milling grain. In both case, one will be taken and the other left. The real answer to Jesus’ question, of course, is each of us should EMBRACE JESUS NOW! Jesus has been saying this all along. In 9.24 He has said, For what does it profit a man if he gains the whole world and loses or forfeits himself? And then in our passage, Whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it (:33). The first half of verse 33 describes material things. We’ll lose them, if we try to hang onto them. The second half describes spiritual salvation. If we turn from our sin and trust Jesus, we will be saved.
  4. What will result with the coming of the Kingdom in fulness (:37)? The disciples want to know where this will take place. Jesus seems to believe they’ve asked the wrong question. It’s not that you can leave and avoid God’s judgment. It’s that God’s judgment will be obvious when He comes, like lightning, like a cloud of vultures.

True followers of Jesus cling to Jesus by faith and will find safe passage into the fulness of the Kingdom at His coming. 

In case you’re wondering, this is probably not the first passage I’d share with someone who doesn’t already know Jesus. My conviction is that people seldom do what we tell them to do, and scaring people only produces short-term change. Rather, I want people to see my deep concern for them and (even more!) my love for Jesus—as well as my excited anticipation of His coming.

That’s been the attitude of followers of Jesus since the days of the early church. Glance through the related passage of 1 Thessalonians 5.2-11 and you’ll see that those who trust Jesus 1) aren’t destined for wrath, but have safe passage (5.9), 2) should “encourage one another” with expectation of Jesus’ return, and 3) should look for Jesus (:3), like a woman in labor expects to meet a person at the end of her ordeal.

At Jesus’ coming, wrongs will be made right, injustices will be wiped away, and we’ll be with Jesus.

Now, how does that make you feel?

Here’s a few questions to discuss with others:

  1. This is a difficult passage, for lots of reasons. What about this is new to you? What is unclear? How does reading about God’s judgment make you feel?
  2. How is God’s just, righteous character revealed in this passage?
  3. How does knowing that Jesus will right all wrongs help you when you read or watch scary news from our troubled world?
  4. What should you do to prepare for Jesus?
  5. What wonderful, grand and beautiful aspects of the NOT YET coming of God’s Kingdom are you looking forward to?
  6. How should you, together with others, increasingly pray for our world?

Humility and Repentance: Luke 18.9-14

What do you think of when you think of a self-made person?

Maybe you think of somebody who lives “off the grid,” Amish style. Or, you might think of somebody who doesn’t depend on Madison or Washington; or somebody who doesn’t punch a clock, because their money works for them; or somebody who is prosperous enough to share with others.

All of this self-dependence is a good thing, if you can get it. But, there’s also a kind of self-dependence that won’t work—especially with God. In fact, it will leave you isolated, from God and from everybody else.

Luke 18 records several parables about coming to God. The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector (:9-14) talks about the heart attitude we must have when coming to God. As it turns out, all this has much to do with how we feel about other people.

Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector (:10). Temple worship in the Old Testament included two daily sacrifices. And, while individuals could pray alone at many other times, the picture here is of public worship.

The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector (:11). Don’t be too crazy hard on this Pharisee. Pharisees were the teachers of Israel. Their job was to model worship and reverence toward God’s Word. This guy got the modeling part right, but it’s his attitude Jesus condemns. Notice how he’s shouldered his way into what was probably the inner court. Now, he stands “by himself,” alone. And, he preaches at the Tax Collector, probably wondering why the most-hated of sinners was in the outer court at all, and not against the eastern wall with the other ceremonially unclean worshippers.

I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get (:12). This is all about comparing himself to others. The Law required fasting once each year on the Day of Atonement. Our Pharisee fasts twice each week. The Law, at that time, required gifts of ten-percent on commodities like oil, grain and wine, but our guy gives ten-percent on everything that enters his mouth—and wants others to know about it. His assumption is that he’s righteous because of what he does. And, what he does is more than what others do and is certainly enough to please God, he thinks.

Notice how the parable leaves him standing by himself. He won’t be accepted by God, and he’s isolated from other people.

But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner! (:13) Perish the thought! But, imagine that Nazi Germany ruled America. And then, there’s an American Nazi who comes to collect your taxes. How do you feel about that guy? That’s how people felt about this tax collector! But, he comes to the Temple. He stands in the outer court. He won’t lift his eyes to God or others. He beasts his chest in remorse, a common practice among women at a funeral, but only seen among men at the account of Jesus’ death on the cross.

But, the Tax Collector falls on God’s mercy.

I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other … (:14a). The parable began with two going up. Now, it ends with one man going down. And, this one man is “justified” before God. That’s a special word. It’s related to the Hebrew word “to cover” or “to atone for”. God accepted the Tax Collector, not because he turned up at the Temple to sacrifice, but because he threw himself on God’s mercy in humility.

And, don’t miss the detail at the end. The Tax Collector went “to his house”. That’s where his people are. He came alone, stood alone, but received acceptance by God, and then went down to be with others.

Jesus ends this short parable with two lessons: For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted (:14b). First lesson: those who lift themselves up (think they’re good enough the way they are and are willing to be judged on what they do), these won’t be accepted by God. And, they’ll remain alone.

Have you ever known church people like that? If that’s been your experience, or if you don’t join much with others in church and you think churches are filled with people like that, I (for one) get what you’re thinking. We at Woodland get that too. In fact, many of us used to be like that. But, this parable shows us that it shouldn’t be that way. It’s not the Gospel, and it doesn’t have to be that way!

Lesson two: those who humble themselves will be lifted up and accepted by God. And, they’ll join others accepted by God.

Here’s the Good News! Since the telling of this parable, Jesus took our offense against God on Himself. He sacrificed His own life, and God accepted this sacrifice. And, when we’re willing to be judged on what Jesus has done, we can come to God. Later, in the New Testament the Book of Romans, we learn what this means for everybody: … for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus (3.23-24).

Those who “get” Jesus know they come to God only in humility to be lifted up in Christ. 

A couple of action steps remain for us. In Christ, we get to come to God in humility. If you come to a place like Woodland Community Church, you need to know that you are among sinners. We’re Tax Collectors, not Pharisees. In fact, some of us are recovering from addictions. Some have been in jail. My goodness, some of us even struggle with pride. We like to say that, apart from the work of Jesus, there’s no difference between us and everybody else. And, if you’re ever in the Northwoods and join us, you won’t be judged. God has judged us with Christ, and Jesus’ righteousness is enough for all!

Second action step: we get to come to God with other people. At Woodland, and any other church that “gets” who Jesus is, you don’t have to stand far off. Instead, because of Jesus, you get to stand right in the midst of God’s people.

Now, that’s a good word. So, don’t try to be self-made with God this week. Instead, come to God in humility. And, come into the midst of God’s people, to be lifted up with others in Christ.

Here’s a few questions to consider with others:

  1. Finally, after a couple of difficult parables these last weeks, we have one that at least seems straight-forward. How would we describe the heart-attitude that is contrasted between the Pharisee and Tax Collector?
  2. What are the social implications we see in these two figures? Whom are the two figures separated from? And, whom are they, finally, united with?
  3. What does the commendable response in humility of the Tax Collector show us about true repentance? What does godly repentance looks like? You might want to consider these verses: Lk 3.3; 3.8; 2 Cor 7.9-10; 2 Tim 2.25.
  4. What role does our repentance play in our salvation? How is it different from faith, but also similar to faith?
  5. How do both faith and repentance relate to the  finished work of Jesus?
  6. What has been your experience with Christians in the past? How does this teaching from Jesus about what it looks like to truly follow Him (by faith, and in humility and repentance) encourage you to forgive others and go deeper into Christian community?
  7. How ought we all to respond to this teaching when we are in the midst of God’s people at Woodland (or, some other church)? What does it mean for the way we feel about God, others, and ourselves?