You will be betrayed by parents, brothers and sisters, relatives and friends, and they will kill some of you. You will be hated by everyone because of my name. But no hair of your head will be lost. The way to keep your lives is to be patient.’
A news reader announces that an asteroid passed close to the earth. When they say ‘close’, they mean about half a million miles; but in terms of the solar system, that’s quite near at hand. It shows, as one commentator said, that the planet Earth is in a bit of a shooting gallery. If I had lived in ancient Greece, or Rome or Egypt, instead of being in the modern world, with efficient telescopes watching, and well-trained scientists ready to explain everything they see, the sight of a strange, moving light in part of the sky where there hadn’t been anything before would at once have been seized upon as a sign. Something dramatic was going to happen.
These near misses happen about once a century. Of course, if the asteroid had hit the earth, something dramatic would have happened all right; not only would it make a hole nearly a mile across, but the energy released as it did so would be the equivalent of several atom bombs. No question of the significance of that.
But in Jesus’ day dramatic and unexpected happenings in the night sky were often thought to signify more than just physical disaster as large objects crashed to earth. People looked at them carefully because they believed they would tell them about the imminent rise and fall of kings and empires. And when Jesus’ disciples asked him how they would know when the frightening events he was talking about would take place, that’s probably the sort of thing they had in mind. Surely Jesus would want them to know, and so would give them signs to watch out for?
Jesus will give them signs of a sort, but actually the main thing he wants them to learn is that there will be a period of waiting, when they will have to be patient through dangerous and testing times.
But what great event will they be waiting for? Luke, more than all the other gospels, has prepared us for the answer. His alert readers will not be surprised at Jesus’ prediction. The Temple, the most beautiful building one could imagine, adorned and decorated by the skill and love of hundreds of years, and occupying the central place in the national life, religion and imagination—the Temple itself would be torn down. It had come to stand for the perversion of Israel’s call that Jesus had opposed throughout his public career. If he was right, the present Temple was wrong; if God was to vindicate him, that would have to include the Temple’s destruction. This was as unthinkable for a devout Jew as it would be for an American to imagine the destruction of the White House, the Washington Memorial and the Statue of Liberty; only much more so, because the Temple signified a thousand years of God’s dealings with Israel.
Jesus’ warnings about what the disciples will face in the days to come clearly indicate that he will no longer be with them, but that they will still be marked out as his followers. Others will come pretending to be him, or to be his spokesperson. The world will be convulsed with wars and revolutions, all the more alarming because, without radio, television, telephones or newspapers, people would hear of such things by rumour from travellers, and would pass on the news with additional speculation until a border skirmish had been inflated, in the telling, to become an all-out war, and the emperor’s occasional sneeze had been exaggerated into a fatal illness.
Jesus clearly expects that amid these turbulent times his followers will be marked out as undesirables. People would retain a memory of Jesus as someone leading Israel astray, deflecting people from keeping the law, and from defending the national interest, with his dangerous talk of God’s kingdom, of peace and grace for all. When the going got tough, in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world, those who were known as Jesus’ people would be in the firing line; and, quite soon, non-Jewish communities would follow their example. Families would be split; sometimes it would seem that the Christians were the ones blamed for everything, the ones everybody loved to hate. If ever they needed patience, they would need it then.
Jesus promises, though, that he will give them what they need during this time of waiting: ‘a mouth and wisdom’. This promise should not, of course, be taken as licence to ignore the hard work required for regular Christian teaching. It refers to the times when people are on trial for their lives because of their allegiance to Jesus. The story of the first generation of Christianity—the time between the resurrection of Jesus and the fall of the Temple in AD 70—bears out these prophecies. And many early Christians would testify that Jesus had indeed been with them and given them words to say.
But this passage, though vital in its specific reference to that first generation, has a good deal to say to the subsequent church as well. Wherever Christians are persecuted for their faith—and, sadly but not surprisingly, this is still common in many parts of the world—they need not only the prayers and support of their fellow believers in more fortunate places, but also the comfort and encouragement of these words: ‘Don’t let anyone deceive you’; ‘a chance to tell your story’; ‘I’ll give you wisdom’; ‘you’ll keep your lives through patience’. These are still precious promises, to be learnt ahead of time and clung to in the moment of need.