“They will lay their hands on you and persecute you.” This is what Jesus promises to His disciples will happen to them. If you’re like me, you probably think about this how this passage might apply to you in terms of hypotheticals. “Some day, when things have gotten bad enough, I too may be persecuted, and I want to be ready.”
But to the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking, the threat of persecution was a not a hypothetical but a certainty. Surely, every part of Scripture speaks to us today, but we will be deceived if we take no care in understanding how. This passage raises the issue of in how much detail we can directly apply Jesus’ New Testament promises to His disciples to us. One thing we don’t want to do is insist so strongly that what happened in the first century to Jesus’ disciples in the Gospels, Acts, or the Epistles is exactly what will happen to us as we face inevitable confusion and discouragement when the given example isn’t true for our lives. We want, therefore, to read the text closely so that we are able to first understand the first century context and then see what it means in our own context. A little context will help, even in a devotional approach to God’s Word.
We know, first, that Jesus is speaking about the destruction of Herod’s Temple and things that must shortly happen to Jesus’ first century disciples. The comments about the Temple in verses 5-6 lead His disciples to ask when these things (the destruction of the Temple will be) and what signs will there be that it is about to take place. It is in this context that Jesus gives His answer, and if we want to faithfully understand what the Master is saying to us, we’d better understand this first. This is especially important not only here but also in the book of Revelation where St. John records three times that the things he is writing about “must take place shortly.”
Because of the specific historical context of Jesus’ words to His disciples, He means first and foremost that they and not us are the ones who will witness wars, earthquakes, famines, pestilences, and signs from heaven. They, and not us, are the ones who will be kicked out of the synagogues (I doubt I’m in danger of being kicked out of any synagogue!) and thrown in prison. They are the ones who will go before kings and rulers, and they are the ones whose own families will betray them.
All of this is certainly true: Jesus is talking primarily to His first-century disciples. Suddenly, I feel much better. Maybe, then, I personally will not be persecuted, and I can safely read on.
Not so fast! While details may change, the Big Picture does not change, and the Big Picture is God and His kingdom. In this case, the Big Picture is that as Jesus’ disciples we are in the middle of a spiritual war, and that means that we will have spiritual enemies and battles just as surely as the first-century disciples: they will just look different. Will you be thrown in prison or out of the synagogue? Doubtful. But will you face opposition from God’s spiritual enemies, and will you face opposition from humans who oppose God and His Kingdom (and therefore His disciples)? Yes!
So this passage is ours, after all, although the amplitude of the battle might be less and the details different.
In this daily spiritual battle, sometimes Christians quote Scripture, and Luke 21:15 in particular, with what amounts to a magical view. By mere virtue of calling yourself a Christian, we are taught that God will always tell us what to say in every situation. Regardless of how faithful we have been or how we have prepared in our daily lives, we believe that God will magically deliver us.
The problem is, once again, that we don’t understand the entire context. Does God still speak through the mouths of His people and through His Spirit enable them to speak on His behalf? Yes! But what we so often miss is that the reason the disciples will not have to prepare beforehand is because they have spent each day of their lives preparing. God promises to speak through the mouths of His disciples, but only if they have proven faithful and not foolish. It is through hearts that have already been given to God and through mouths that have already practiced speaking God’s truth that God is most likely to continue to speak.
And this is exactly where the spiritual battle takes place each day: in the middle of “normal” activities which are, in reality, opportunities to practice our faithfulness to the Master. On the occasional days when the spiritual battle is fought more fiercely and visibly, it is the disciple who has been schooled in the small daily battles that will prevail, and not the disciple who is hoping for a magical deliverance.
Rather than looking back to some irrelevant past or forward to some unknown future, we should realize that God is speaking to us today, warning us of the spiritual battle that quietly rages in each of our lives. And he is telling us to prepare by possessing our souls in patience, a steady diet of small decisions to do His will.
Prayer: Father, make me wise in hearing Your Word today. Make it alive and active and applicable in my life today. I ask especially that You may remind of the spiritual battle that I am a part of and pray that You will equip me each day with both Your Word and a heart that faithfully responds as Your witness in the world.
Points for Meditation:
- In what ways do you feel the spiritual warfare that exists most keenly in your life? What steps are you taking to adequately prepare for and fight this spiritual warfare?
- What areas of your life are most out of order or most likely to be an obstacle to fellowship with God? What are some steps that God is calling you to take to fight this spiritual battle?
Resolution: I resolve today to remember that I am part of a spiritual war and to prepare by looking for opportunities to train today.
Trench Warfare – U.S. Public Domain