Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 05/21/1995
Luke 12:35 [Jesus says] "Be dressed in readiness and keep your lamps alight. 36 And be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. 37 Blessed are those slaves whom the master shall find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, he will gird himself to serve and have them recline at table, and he will come up and wait on them. 38 Whether he comes in the second watch or even in the third and finds them so, blessed are those slaves. 39 And be sure of this, that if the head of the house had known at what hour the thief was coming, he would not have allowed his house to be broken into. 40 You too be ready; for the Son of Man is coming in an hour that you do not expect." 41 And Peter said, "Lord, are you addressing this parable to us, or to everyone else as well?" 42 And the Lord said, "Who then is the faithful and sensible steward whom his master will put in charge of his servants, to give them their rations at the proper time? 43 Blessed is that slave whom the master finds so doing when he comes. 44 Truly I say to you that he will put him in charge of all his possessions. 45 But if that slave says in his heart, 'My master will be a long time in coming,' and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, 46 the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers. 47 And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will shall receive many lashes, 48 but the one who did not know it and committed deeds worthy of a flogging will receive but few. And from everyone who has been given much shall much be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more."
In a passage of great earnestness, Peter writes this in his second epistle: "Know this first of all, that in the last days mockers will come with their mocking, following after their own lusts, and saying, 'Where is the promise of his coming?'" (3:3-4). Peter's answer to this question is to point out that with the Lord, a day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day. The Lord is delaying his coming out of patience and mercy, so that more may repent. But the day will come like a thief and the heavens and the earth will pass away in fervent heat. Then comes the conclusion he draws from his argument: "Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?" (3:11). He writes this way in part because of the instructions he remembered receiving from the Lord here in Luke chapter 12. People were already acting like the slave in the parable, who said to himself, "My master will be a long time in coming." If people were already starting to be blasť about it in the first century, how much more do we have the same problem today! Like Peter's original readers, we need to recover a sense of urgency about the Lord's work.
I know exactly what the Lord was talking about, and why he was so careful not to reveal to us the day and hour of his return. When I was in seminary I worked for awhile as a caretaker for a nouveau rich family's mansion on the shore of Lake Michigan north of Chicago. I got room and board and a cash allowance for taking care of the place. Once they went to Europe for two weeks, and I had the run of the mansion while they were gone. In this case, I knew the very day and the hour of the master's return, for I was to pick them up at O'Hare in their luxury car when they got back. Did I diligently do my job for the two weeks they were gone? Well, I spent about twelve days swimming in the pool, playing billiards in the game room, and running their stereo system. Then on the day before their return there was a sudden desperate flurry of intense cleaning and yard work--about a solid day and a half of it--so that they could come back to their house the way they left it. What if I had not known when they would return? I would have had to take a very different approach to that fortnight! Listen: the Lord's not stupid! But when we're dealing with a much longer period than two weeks, the logical approach to being ready for the master's return--always be ready!--begins to get lost on us anyway. And that's why we need the Lord's message to us today. He gives us in this passage three reasons for readiness, three reasons not to look at the Christian warfare as permanent R & R (Rest and Relaxation). And the first of them is:
The first reason to be always ready for the Lord's return--that is, always about the business of the Christian life, which is to "let our light so shine before men that they may see our good works and glorify our Father who is in heaven," is that we are commanded to be. "Be dressed in readiness and keep your lamps alight. And be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks. " If we were the servants of our Lord Jesus Christ that we ought to be, this would be reason enough. For, as our Lord pointed out, if we love him we will keep his commandments. And what is commanded here? Action! We are to be like he himself was at the Temple even at twelve years of age, always about our Father's business, advancing his kingdom, proclaiming his Gospel, letting our light so shine. This does not mean that we never take time to rest, or even just to enjoy life. God instituted the Sabbath for just that purpose, and the Lord set us an example himself of taking more extended retreats from the demands of his daily ministry. But even at rest, even when relaxing, we should be people whose light still shines. And we should not forget what the main business of life is--not making money or having what superficial people call "fun" but glorifying God and pointing lost people to his Son. How many of us take the main job the Lord left us in this world to do and make it something for our spare time? Whether or not our calling is to what is inaccurately called "full time Christian service" (you are not in "part time" Christian service just because you aren't a pastor or missionary!), we are to be actively involved in the Lord's work. The NASB gives a clumsily abstract rendering of "gird up your loins" as "be dressed in readiness." A good modern equivalent would be, "Roll up your sleeves!" The fields are white already unto harvest. The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Let me put it this way: If your hands aren't dirty, your heart can't be clean.
We get some funny ideas from the way some preachers exhort us to be ready for the Lord's return. I remember as a little boy hearing a sermon on Mark 13:37, "What I say unto you, I say unto all: Watch!" I went home and spent Sunday afternoon "gazing up into the heavens" with my telescope, watching, watching, keeping the sharpest lookout I could for the first sign of Jesus on his way down! I don't think that was quite what even the preacher had in mind; I know it's not what the Lord meant. The word translated "watch" in the King James means not peering intently into the distance but rather staying alert, not sleeping at your post. That is the same idea Jesus is teaching us here. Be ready! Be alert! Be at your post, representing the Father as an ambassador of his Son in the midst of a fallen and rebellious world. Be actively involved in the Lord's work, ready to respond in an instant to an opportunity to serve him. But I am afraid the Lord may come back to find many of us sleeping at our posts, or, worse, mistreating our fellow servants. The command is "Be dressed in readiness and keep you lamps alight. And be like men who are waiting for their master when he returns from the wedding feast, so that they may immediately open the door to him when he comes and knocks."
The condition under which we carry on the Lord's mission in his absence is one of unpredictability: we do not know when he will return. This is emphasized no less than three times in this passage. "Whether he comes in the second watch or even in the third and finds them so, blessed are those slaves" (vs. 38). "You too be ready; for the Son of Man is coming in an hour that you do not expect" (vs. 40). "The master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers" (vs. 46). And it is emphasized again and again throughout the New Testament. No one knows the day and the hour, not even the Son ( ! ), but only the Father (Mat. 24:36). You begin to wonder how so many of us have managed to miss it.
The first implication of this emphasis is that date setting is right out. No one knows the day or the hour. That includes you; it includes the Bible teacher you follow. You absolutely cannot figure it out. Don't even try! It is disobedient for you to try. Your command is not to guess the time; it is to be ready at any time--as I was not at the Solovy's mansion. Don't even try to figure it out--and don't listen to anyone else who thinks he can figure it out, either. The very second he starts speculating on the subject, the first second he implies he knows anything about the date, he has just flown a big red banner up his flagpole with the words "False Teacher!" embroidered on it in bold black letters. If you want to be faithful to the Lord's teaching here, you will not listen to another word that man has to say and you will not send him another cent of your tithe. I'm serious. We have cost the Gospel way too much credibility by our appetite for and tolerance of this nonsense already. All such speculation is unbiblical by its very nature. Let's be done with it!
The second implication is that we must always be ready. We cannot afford to live like I did at the Solovy's mansion in Highland Park. We are instead in the position of the servant in the parable, and we had better not forget it. But what does it mean to be "ready"? Here is where I think an awful lot of our preachers and teachers have gotten us off the track. Most of the exhortations I have heard about being ready for the Lord's return involve trying to scare us out of committing certain "sins" by getting us to imagine the Lord "catching" us in them if he came back when we weren't ready. What if the Lord came back and found you at a movie? Or in a bar? Or even thinking a bad thought? We have managed to turn Jesus into a hawk-eyed principal patrolling the halls of the spiritual grammar school. You'd better straighten up lest he come around the corner and catch you cutting up in the hall!
Well, whatever merit such exhortations may have, they have nothing--absolutely nothing--to do with the point Jesus was trying to make here. Of course we ought not to want the Lord to catch us sinning. But what does that have to do with the Second Coming? We can make such exhortations relevant to that topic only by heretically denying the doctrine of divine omniscience. I've got news for you. You don't have to wait for Jesus to come back to catch you doing something wrong. He sees you right now! If that is not enough to motivate you to a life that pleases him, if that is not enough to keep you on your knees living a life of continual repentance, then you just aren't ready for advanced theological topics like eschatology. You had better go back to the basics: repentance toward God and faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. I would not want the Lord to come back and catch me worrying about what I was going to be doing when he came back! I want him to come back and find me doing it: doing his will. That's the point.
In other words, the exhortation to "be ready" is a reminder that we live in time and that time is finite. We do not have forever to accomplish whatever we are going to accomplish for Christ in this life. Yet we act as if we did. Someday--we don't know when--those opportunities will be over forever. Someday--for all we know it could be today--those opportunities will be gone. Even if the Lord does not come back today, your soul may be required of you, as it was of the rich man in last week's parable. So what the Lord is saying is, "Get on with it!" "Carpe diem, seize the day!" Stop endlessly putting off the things you believe Christ is calling you to do in this life. You don't have forever to break that habit, to start reading your Bible regularly, to pay back that debt, to ask X's forgiveness, witness to Y, or tell Z that you love him. You may not be able to accomplish it all. You may not be able to accomplish any of it. Jesus doesn't love you for what you accomplish! This is not about works. But if you love him, don't you want to accomplish some of it? Not because you are afraid of what he will think, but because you love him, don't you want him to find you at least working on it? Don't you want him to find you at your post? We don't have forever; let's stop acting as if we did.
But there is another side to the unpredictability of the master's return. For all we know it might be today. But for all we know, it might also be a very long time off yet. Therefore we must not be irresponsible. We must not quit our jobs and wait out on a hillside. We must live in such a way that both possibilities are covered. That is, we want him to find us at our post--planning for what we will do if he tarries! You need to be ready to open the door, but equally ready to give the other servants another day of rations, and with some plan how you're going to come up with those rations if the waiting continues. You don't know when the burglar is coming, so you lock your door every night. You don't know when the pop quiz is coming, so you review your notes every night. You don't know when the inspection is coming, so you are always at your post. We must live in such a way that both possibilities are covered, whether Christ come back today or waits another thousand years. That is what it means to be faithful.
The third reason for readiness is the consequences of whether we are ready or not. The consequence of unreadiness is judgment. "But if that slave says in his heart, 'My master will be a long time in coming,' and begins to beat the slaves, both men and women, and to eat and drink and get drunk, the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know, and will cut him in pieces and assign him a place with the unbelievers" (vs. 45-6). The best way to be unready is to be an unbeliever. The next best is to be merely a professing believer. Therefore, a good way to examine yourself whether you be in the faith, whether your conversion was genuine, is to examine your own attitude to the second coming. Does the news of his return inspire you to serve him faithfully out of love in anticipation of the joy of being found faithful, or do you find yourself saying, "'My master will be a long time in coming," and find excuses to be unfaithful or even beat the other servants? A person who does not relate properly in this way to the second coming of Christ is probably not rightly related to the first one, either. Beware!
One of the most interesting passages in the Bible is vs. 47-48: "And that slave who knew his master's will and did not get ready or act in accord with his will shall receive many lashes, but the one who did not know it and committed deeds worthy of a flogging will receive but few." This is the basis for the doctrine that there will be degrees of punishment in Hell, and I think it is a sound basis. It is comforting when we think of the so-called "righteous pagan," those individuals like Socrates whom we can hardly stand to think of not being in heaven, but for whom we have no warrant to believe that they will. But it has the opposite effect when you apply it to us. Make no mistake. The very fact that you were here today puts you in vs. 47 with those who knew the master's will. We had better live accordingly!
But the main motive for readiness is not fear of the punishment for the unready. It is the astounding reward that is held out for those who will be found faithful. Vs. 37 must be one of the most astounding statements in all of Scripture: "Blessed are those slaves whom the master shall find on the alert when he comes; truly I say to you, he will gird himself to serve and have them recline at table, and he will come up and wait on them." The disciples' jaws must have dropped and their eyes popped when they heard that. For there is no way in their society you were ever going to see slaves sitting at the table being served by their master! Think about it. Eye hath not seen nor ear heard nor hath it entered into the heart of man what the Lord has prepared for those who love him. Well, this verse just entered into your ear. So the reality will be something even more astounding than this! The Lord girding himself with a towel and washing the disciples' feet--which has entered into their experience and our imagination--is just the faint reflection of the reality that is being set before us here. Can you imagine anything better than hearing Jesus say to you, "Well done, thou good and faithful servant?" I can't. But this unimaginable reality that the Lord's words foreshadow is out there for us. God will honor his faithful servants in ways we cannot fathom. It must be what Jesus was talking about when he said that we would share his glory. I don't know about you, but I do not want to miss that! It all boils down to this: that we are going to experience the Father's love and the grace of the Son in new ways. I don't know what it will be like, but I do know one way to have foretastes of that glory here and now: and that is to walk faithfully with the Lord in th present. For that is what it means to be ready for his return.
"Since all these things are to be destroyed in this way, what sort of people ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness?" (2 Pet. 3:11). We ought to be people who are faithful servants at their posts. Oh, that is what I want to be! And by God's grace that is what we can be. Father, make it so in our lives, for our good and His glory. Amen.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams