Like many of my age group, when the “Left Behind” books came out, I read each one. I was just at the age where I felt comfortable starting to question pastors and authors. And I was realizing that not everything printed in a book was automatically correct just because it had passed in front of editors. Reading this series based on a relatively recent (just a couple hundred years old) interpretation of passages from 1 Thessalonians, I thought, “This doesn’t make sense with what Jesus talked about in the Gospels.” Jesus’ description of a cataclysm in Luke 21 isn’t even about the end of the world, but it does help us think about the world to come.
When people remarked about how beautiful the temple was, Jesus didn’t seem to share their admiration. Instead, he told them that it would be destroyed (Luke 21:6). Not even 40 years after Jesus said this, the temple was destroyed in 70 CE. All the things that he described—wars, earthquakes, famines, struggles among kingdoms, persecution in the synagogues and Christians being martyred—had already happened well before 70 CE. Jesus described an event that many of his younger followers would live to see and many of the first readers of the Gospels would witness. But Jesus’ instructions to his disciples in the run up to this time deserve a closer look.
The first warning is sort of an anti-warning—to maintain calm and not get easily alarmed. When people rise up and say “the end is near” or “I am the second coming,” Jesus’ followers shouldn’t take them seriously (Luke 21:8). When wars and conflict happen all around, that only means the time has not yet arrived (21:9). Jesus’ words about not being too alarmed remind me of my professor who used to say: “If you’re eating a bowl of soup, and someone says, ‘The messiah has come, you must come and see!’ first finish your soup, and then go see.”
The first warning is sort of an anti-warning—to maintain calm and not get easily alarmed. When people rise up and say “the end is near” or “I am the second coming,” Jesus’ followers shouldn’t take them seriously (Luke 21:8).
The second warning is also a bit counterintuitive. After Jesus told his followers that they would be arrested and imprisoned, he said they should not prepare a defense of their faith in advance (Luke 21:14). Many of us have been unconsciously following this instruction already! I remember a junior high Sunday school teacher telling my class that we should imagine that Christianity has been made illegal and think through what we would say if we were arrested. I think it’s absolutely worthwhile to reflect on our faith and be ready to share what God’s love has meant to us. At the same time, Jesus said imagining what we will say under duress only robs him of an opportunity to give us wisdom that will confound those who persecute his people (Luke 21:15). Jesus’ instructions are firmly in line with Isaiah, who confessed: “I will trust, I will not be afraid, the Lord God is my strength and might, he has become my salvation” (Isaiah 12:2).
But if Jesus’ words in Luke 21 were about an event that happened close to 2,000 years ago, what will the end of the world look like?
Well, the Bible doesn’t really present future events as cut and dry as a history textbook presents past events. Still, dozens of descriptions of the world to come exist. One of my favorites is from Isaiah 65. The vision is prophetic/poetic, so we shouldn’t interpret the passage to be a completely literal description. (Are people going to die in the new heaven and new earth?—compare to Isaiah 65:20.) But the picture it presents is one of cities created for joy (18), of no more death and loss (19-20), and my favorite part is that we will all engage in creative work and enjoy the fruits of our labor (21-23). God will respond before God’s people even speak (24) and even natural enemies will live in peace together (25).
That is the world to come that I look forward to. And notice, hearkening back to our discussion of resurrection last week, it is a world in which resurrected bodies are useful for eating and building.
Jesus’ words to his disciples about the impending destruction and dispersion of their civilization are surprisingly anti-climactic. If someone warns you it is the end, they are wrong. If someone claims to be the messiah, they are not. Don’t worry or even think about what you will say when interrogated. Jesus is in control. On the contrary, the “end of the world,” so to speak, is the beginning of a resurrected world in which peace, joy and creative work will be the hallmarks of our lives. That is a cause for joy, not fear.