How do we respond to the global and personal pressures that we are facing? Do we retreat from the pressures or persevere? In this passage from Luke, Jesus tells his disciples to expect pressures on a global and personal scale but gives them the resources and encouragement to stand firm.
My question today is how do you cope under pressure?
We’ve had instances in our political world recently of responses to ongoing pressure. There were several headlines about Liz Truss crumbling under pressure. Opinions were that she was forced to flee under the pressure. The reality is no-one ever knows how we are going to handle pressures until we’re facing them.
The term “fight-or-flight” represents the choices our ancient ancestors had when faced with danger in their environment, when they were put under pressure: it is the idea that under any pressure you either fight or flee. In either case, the physiological and psychological response to stress prepares the body to react to the danger, the pressure being faced.
Hence my question how are you under pressure, how do you manage? Do you fight or flee?
The fight mechanism makes you want to stand your ground, defend your position, attack, dig in, persevere. Whereas the flight mechanism causes you to give way, retreat, discard, remove yourself, give up, move on.
In today’s passage Jesus is teaching those gathered about the destruction of the Temple, about persecution for their faith, and about the end times. He’s encouraging, commanding his disciples to stand firm, stand their ground, dig in, persevere, through all that will come. He’s Giving them a perspective that will help them during the pressures that are approaching and inevitable. Jesus is predicting that his disciples will come under great pressure, and he wants them to understand it’s expected and to stand firm.
And although we are here 2000 years later, the message is similar for us today. Under pressure – stand firm, defend your position, dig in, persevere. There are bigger things at play, there is an eternal perspective, and we have God with us through all of it.
I was reading an article from the International Monetary Fund, which is not my usual publication, but I was googling ‘current pressures the world is under today’ and it bought up this article about how ‘the global economy continues to face steep challenges, shaped by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a cost-of-living crisis caused by persistent and broadening inflation pressures, and the slowdown in China’s economic growth and that for many people, 2023 will feel like a recession’. That is the reality of the pressures we’re facing on a global scale, in some part due to ongoing war.
This Remembrance Sunday as civic events and our own act of remembrance calls us to remember the sacrifice of our service men and women, who have given their lives for a better future for others, we are still faced with the reality of wars. And our recent experiences show the reality of disease and famine. In the passage Jesus talks of wars and uprisings, of pestilence, disease, famine, persecution. Maybe in some ways we are not so far removed from the context in which this passage was written. The relative peace and security that we think we have enjoyed maybe not quite as certain. There are wars still raging, disease famine and persecution ongoing.
So, under these pressures how do we stand firm, persevere? How does God want to speak into our lives through this passage today in facing the pressures that we’re facing?
It may help to have the passage open Luke 21:5-19 and we’ll look at it in two sections. The first being verses 5-11.
The passage begins with Jesus and his disciples in the temple. The disciples are gushing over its beauty and splendour and the glory it gives to God. The temple was many, many times larger than any building in Galilee where the disciples were from. It was immense and glorious, a tremendous symbol of national pride. It had been under construction for most of the disciples lives. It was incredible. Here they are in its walls. And here is Jesus telling of its destruction. He tells them in v6 that not one stone will be left on another. That is utter destruction. The imagery of not one stone being left on another indicates a literal flattening. Total destruction.
The disciples response to this in v 7, is when? They want a sign! They want to know what to expect to tell them when this will happen. Jesus uses this opportunity to teach his disciples, warn them, prepare them for what lies ahead when the temple is destroyed and to again teach them about the end times.
This is the fourth time in Luke’s gospel that Jesus has discussed the end times and his language shifts into the use of what is known as apocalyptic language. This is Language that is used to talk about the end times when we believe Jesus will return once more to judge the living and the dead, and all things will be perfected in the new heaven and new earth. One commentator writes that here the Apocalyptic literature uses unsettling language and imagery as a means to assure the faithful that they should keep their trust in God even when facing the most challenging of circumstances. Even when under incredible pressure.
When this was written by Luke, the temple had actually already been destroyed. The destruction of the temple happened around 70 AD and the dating of the gospel of Luke is thought to be from 80-100 AD. The temple was not just the centre of the Jewish civilisation: it was the place where God lived among them. But when this was written Jesus was now present with them through the power of the Holy Spirit. Although the physical temple had been destroyed, because of Jesus’s death, rising from the dead and returning to heaven, he gave the gift of his spirit to all who believed in him. The physical temple had been destroyed but now as temples of the Spirit, all who follow Jesus are as the apostle Peter wrote, are ‘born anew to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and to an inheritance which is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading’ (2 Pet 1:4). Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice was to give his followers an eternal future.
As we remembered the sacrifice of service men and women for a future for those to come after them, Jesus’ sacrifice was to ensure an eternal future for all who trust in him across the whole stretch of history. That is an eternal hope. The life of eternity that faith through Jesus brings. The pressures of this world are a reality, but God still has control and presence in the world and with his people and promises a future hope.
In these particular verses in chapter 21, Jesus talks about various signs that will be seen before Jesus returns to bring to fulfilment the promise of eternity, and that all these things should be expected. Leon Morris a biblical commentator says about verse 8 that: “Jesus was not predicting the end of the world within the lifetime of men then living. He regarded those who make such forecasts as false prophets.” So even though Jesus began this discussion with the reality of the destruction of the temple. The following language has a more generalised end time apocalyptic focus. Jesus doesn’t say these things to scare his disciples – remember he says to not be afraid, but he says these things to help them prepare their perspectives. Wars, uprisings, earthquakes, famine, epidemics, pandemics will happen, but the time is still ahead when Jesus will return.
In most generations since this passage was written there have been wars, pestilence, earthquakes etc. We shouldn’t be surprised, we shouldn’t go into flight mode but dig in, stand firm, persevere. These things are to be expected and are temporary when compared to the end goal of eternity with God. Wars and tragedies are expected, these pressures will come, dig in, stand firm, persevere because eternity with Jesus is coming. It can help us under pressure to put that into perspective. It doesn’t belittle what we’re going through, or the suffering and loss experienced but it can shift our perspective, giving hope.
In v5-11, Jesus tells his disciples that the nations rising against nation, famine, disease will happen, but before that happens, he warns his disciples in v12-19 to expect persecution, with again the command to stand firm.
The Acts of the Apostles (written by the same author who wrote Luke’s Gospel) provides numerous examples of early Christian leaders facing precisely the sort of troubles that Jesus describes in the second part of our reading in Luke 21:12-19. Persecution was a reality for the early believers. Jesus predicts this. And in these verses 12-19 Jesus tells his disciples that because of their faith in Jesus they will be arrested, imprisoned, ill-treated but that in fact this persecution is “an opportunity to testify” (v13). It’s a chance to dig in, stand firm and persevere. He urges them to not worry beforehand about their own defence, and in v15 he tells them that he himself will provide strength and wisdom for such testimony. Jesus goes on to tell them that their faith in him could even result in their own families turning against them, that some will even be put to death because of Jesus, and everyone will hate them because of Him, but that they are to stand firm as they will win life, and not a hair on their head will die.
What do those verses mean? Clearly history shows us that many of the early disciples were put to death because of their faith in Jesus. So how can Jesus say a hair on their head would not perish. Well, it again comes back to the eternal perspective. Jesus is telling his disciples that ‘Although persecution and death may come, God is in control and the ultimate outcome will be eternal victory … They may lose their earthly life but ultimately, their experience of persecution will not end in death but in a victory for their souls’ as one commentator puts it.
Eternal life is a reality and changes our perspective when pressures come.
We focussed earlier on the global pressures we are currently facing with wars, uprisings, political and economic uncertainty. This passage can help to put that into perspective with our eternal home. Not to nullify those things but to help us not be surprised when global things happen, and to give us strength and perspective to dig in, persevere and stand firm. Trusting in Jesus. But what about on a personal level? What pressures are we facing individually? How does that passage speak into those areas?
It might feel unlikely that we’ll experience the same persecution as Jesus’ disciples experienced. But I wonder how many of us feel pressure from family and friends because of our faith? Do we stand up against pressures that might creep into our Sundays and prevent us devoting the day to God as his sabbath rest? Or even spending time with God each day? Maybe we feel friends at school or college, or work isolate us because of our faith in Jesus, treat us differently and in not a kind way. Some of us maybe have even experienced outright hate. This passage encourages us to expect these things and to equip and prepare us for it. To trust God, dig in, persevere, stand firm.
If all these oncoming pressures are expected, both global and personal, how can we stand firm, be resilient and persevere? And not flee under pressure. But dig in and trust God’s eternal love? Well, we can with an eternal perspective. With the strength of God’s spirit with us we can have his wisdom in addressing those that might be attacking us because of our faith, we can have confidence in our eternal home and in Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice to bring eternal life and hope when he comes again and brings us home.